Friday, February 11, 2011

WASHINGTON -- The FBI has opened a preliminary probe into ousted Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his circle to determine whether they have any U.S. assets, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is teaming up with a new anti-kleptocracy squad at the Justice Department that is searching for fraudulent proceeds foreign officials have stashed away abroad, the Journal said, citing people familiar with the matter.
A week after a popular uprising toppled Ben Ali on Jan. 14, the U.S. Treasury warned financial institutions of a possible “flow of illicit assets” out of Tunisia, fearing government officials would seek to take proceeds from corruption out of the country.

The European Union has already slapped asset freezes on Ben Ali and his associates, and Tunisia has issued a warrant for the arrest of the former leader and his wife Leila Trabelsi for illegally transferring funds abroad.
“We are going to bring cases against the assets of those around the world who have stolen from their citizenry and have taken money that obviously belongs to their country,” the Justice Department's crime chief, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, told the Journal.
“Those people are the embodiment, in some ways, of what's wrong in these countries.”
His division's Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section has been authorized to hire five lawyers to join a unit that seeks illicit assets belonging to senior foreign officials and return them to the countries to which they belong, the report said.
The Journal said the FBI had also added agents to the effort. The FBI declined to comment on the matter when questioned on the matter by AFP.
U.S. financial institutions are required to especially scrutinize bank accounts held by or on behalf of foreign senior political officials.
The FBI probe is focused on determining whether Ben Ali has assets stashed in the United States or has used U.S. financial institutions to move illicit assets, according to the Journal. Only then would the United States have the necessary jurisdiction to pursue a case.

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