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Switzerland sees surge in reports of money-laundering

Deposed former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, left, and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, in Sirte, Libya, Aug.15, 2005. Swiss authorities revealed in 2011 they had blocked 830-million francs worth of assets linked to regimes in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, and opened investigations into allegations of money laundering and organized crime in Tunisia and Egypt.


The value of suspected cases of money-laundering in Switzerland soared to a record sum of 3.28-billion Swiss francs ($3.51-billion) last year as regime changes following the Arab Spring led to a big jump in suspected cases from North Africa.

The number of "suspicious activity reports" jumped 40 per cent to 1,625 in 2011, according to the annual report released yesterday by the Money Laundering Reporting Office Switzerland (MROS). In financial terms, that was an increase of some 287 per cent from 847-million francs in 2010.

A major contributor was "the numerous business connections reported in the wake of political events primarily in the Middle East and North Africa," MROS wrote in its report.

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Switzerland, keen to fight its image as a haven for illicit assets, moved quickly after the fall of leaders Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya to freeze assets. Swiss authorities last year revealed they had blocked 830-million francs worth of assets linked to those regimes, and opened investigations into allegations of money laundering and organized crime in Tunisia and Egypt.

The Swiss crackdown has reached Canadian shores. Swiss authorities in April arrested Riadh Ben Aissa, a former executive of Canadian engineering giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. and a dual Canadian-Tunisian citizen, on allegations of money laundering, fraud and corruption in North Africa.

The same month, SNC-Lavalin's headquarters in Montreal were raided by the RCMP at the request of the Swiss authorities.

Mr. Ben Aissa was fired by SNC-Lavalin in February, accused of making $56-million worth of payments to commercial agents to secure contracts. Mr. Ben Aissa denied any wrongdoing in February. Michael Edelson, a lawyer for Mr. Ben Aissa in Canada, declined to comment on Monday.

As of last week, Mr. Ben Aissa was still being held in custody, according to Switzerland's Federal Prosecutor's Office. Jacqueline Buehlmann, a spokeswoman for the office, declined to comment Monday on whether his arrest was connected to any of the reports of suspicious activity filed with MROS in 2011.

There were 55 suspicious activity reports forwarded to MROS regarding Egypt last year, 40 about Tunisia and 33 abou Libya. The amounts involved for these three countries totalled 566-million francs in 2011. There were no suspected cases reported in 2010.

Banks did most of the reporting last year, accounting for 1,080 of the 1,625 files forward to the MROS.

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