Thursday,15 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013
Thursday,15 November, 2018
Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

‘There was unimaginably widespread corruption’

In an exclusive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Kamel Girgis, director of international cooperation in the prosecutor-general’s office, talks about retrieving stolen Egyptian funds

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Al-Ahram Weekly

 

 

While Switzerland has been responsive to Egypt’s request for the return of stolen funds held in the country and has begun drafting a law enabling the recovery of such funds and Britain has frozen the assets of several Egyptian nationals as part of the same process, some Gulf states have not even responded to messages on the issue.

Kamel Girgis explains the issues involved.

 

What are the latest developments in efforts to retrieve the stolen assets?

Recent developments have been good. Switzerland has begun drafting a law enabling Egypt and the Arab Spring countries to retrieve funds linked to corrupt former officials. This law was based on a request submitted by Egypt to Switzerland in January, and it will be applied to the former officials, their families and confidants, and will give beneficiary countries a key advantage, namely recovering funds without court orders.

The Swiss case is vital right now, and Swiss cooperation should encourage us to exert more pressure to expedite the retrieval process. The pressure began in the Swiss media after I held a news conference to present our case there and among the Egyptian expatriate community, especially people who are also Swiss nationals and work in government positions. Resorting to the Swiss media is very important because the people are the ones who rule, and if the people sympathise with a cause something must be done. Over the coming months, I plan to appeal to the opposition parties there to win their support.

Switzerland has responded to Egypt’s demands to protect its reputation and out of concerns that the issue could impact its economic standing. If it is earns a reputation as a country that harbours the money of corrupt figures, this could negatively impact its credit rating.

 

Switzerland was responsive to Egypt’s request, while Britain procrastinated. Why?

The problem was not the British but the Egyptians. In the past, Egypt moved slowly and without a precise plan, but requests for disclosure and the freezing and recovery of looted funds should be processed according to UN agreements on the disclosure of corruption and according to the laws of the country where the funds are held. Therefore, we needed to study the laws of every country Egypt suspected to be harbouring stolen funds so that we could handle the issue in the proper manner.

I have been trying to move us onto the correct path, and we started with Switzerland. Switzerland froze 760 million Swiss francs (about LE5 billion) belonging to Egyptian officials, and Britain froze assets worth 85 million sterling, not because of Egypt’s efforts but because the laws in those countries required it. Therefore, these were administrative freezes and not legal ones, which means that recovering the money is still uncertain. We must seek to freeze these funds on a legal basis.

 

Which other countries may harbour stolen funds?

We have approached many countries that we know harbour Egyptian funds, and some have confirmed these suspicions, such as Switzerland, the UK, Hong Kong, France, Spain, the US, Canada and the Principality of Liechtenstein. But other countries, such as Belgium and Denmark, have denied there are Egyptian funds there. Still other states have entirely ignored us, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, although we are certain there are large sums there. I believe they are ignoring us for political reasons.

 

Is it difficult to track and retrieve stolen funds?

Using the proper process helps discover these funds, and we decided to cooperate with the money laundering office at the Central Bank to track down the stolen money. This can acquire information from its counterparts in various countries. But the main problem in Egypt, whether in recovering funds or anything else, is that everyone works individually, and there is no teamwork. You could be meeting with officials from these countries and find the Egyptian team presenting different viewpoints at the meeting.

 

It has been more than two years since the revolution and the start of efforts to recover the stolen wealth. But so far there have been no real results. Why is this?

Previous committees were disorganised and functioned in the wrong way. Egypt has also been experiencing unusual political circumstances that could have been hindering the return of the funds. The Swiss Federal Criminal Court issued a ruling blocking Egypt’s access to ongoing investigations there because of military rule in the transitional phase, for example, as well as the putting of the constitutional court under siege and interference in the judicial process. Spain took the same course in the case of Hussein Salem regarding accusations of selling natural gas to Israel.

Meanwhile, my partners in the ten-member delegation from the Illicit Gains Office and the Foreign Ministry objected to my attempts to lobby for issuing a law in Switzerland to enable us to get back the funds. Some of them fought me even after we succeeded in convincing the Swiss of this by taking advantage of Haiti’s experience with Switzerland in a similar case.

Instead of helping me, they spread rumours in Egypt undermining the success of this effort. I am sometimes frustrated by this general atmosphere, but I am always overpowered by my love for my country which keeps me forging ahead.

 

The experience of other countries trying to recover stolen funds has not been very successful. Is Egypt experiencing similar problems?

Previous experiences were undertaken by developing countries that did not have the experience needed to deal with such issues. Handling them in the proper manner is certain to bring results. In all cases, the countries where these funds are located take a percentage of the money in administrative fees or such like, but these fees are trivial in comparison to the amounts involved.

 

Is it true there are large sums of Egyptian funds abroad and that the cost of retrieving them will be high?

The looted funds are very large and more than what has been frozen in Switzerland and Britain. It is difficult to estimate, but they do not run into the rumoured trillions of dollars. The cost of the committees is the responsibility of the Illicit Gains Office, and I cannot comment on it. However, I recently discovered that bodies such as the World Bank, the EU and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime have budgets to support the recovery of funds belonging to the Arab Spring countries. We have not benefited from these, and I do not know why. I have decided that any travel in this matter should be funded by these bodies, saving the state this expenditure.

 

There have been stories about smuggling money, gold and other assets through banks, seaports and airports after Mubarak stepped down with the help of bank and port officials. Are these true?

It is not unlikely that this happened. Events have revealed that there was unimaginably widespread corruption under the former regime, and even if some former officials have been acquitted of it, this only means that the laws were tailored at the time to serve such interests. The courts apply the law, and if we want to prosecute all the corruption that took place in Egypt before the Revolution in such a way as to guarantee retribution we should resort to revolutionary tribunals. However, if we did so Egypt would never be able to recover a single penny of the looted funds because other countries only recognise regular courts.

 

The state is seeking agreement with several former officials, such as Rachid Mohamed Rachid, the former minister of industry and trade. Does this mean their assets abroad will not be retrieved?

The legal status of these figures has not yet been decided, and we do not know how their assets abroad will be handled.

 

How will the possibility of the former prosecutor-general’s returning to office impact this issue?

It is certain that judicial instability negatively impacts the recovery of funds.

 

If the stolen funds are retrieved, what is the best way to use them?

The people must decide how these funds are to be spent through a referendum.

 

interview by Hayat Yehia

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