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Posted Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Swiss court blocks release of former Haiti dictator's funds, lawyer for Victims says
By The Associated Press

GENEVA (AP) -- A Geneva court has blocked the release of some of the 7.6 million Swiss francs ($6.2 million) stashed in Switzerland by former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, a lawyer for two Haitians said Wednesday.

The decision was taken four days before a freeze on all of the ex-president's Swiss accounts expires, and all the money could have been returned to the Duvalier family.

"We received the notice that the order has been issued, so that our request has been accepted," Marc Henzelin told The Associated Press. The court has not yet issued a public notice of its decision.

Henzelin's legal firm lodged a request with the cantonal (state) court of Geneva on behalf of two prominent victims of Duvalier's regime.

Haitians Etzer LaLanne and Gerard Jean-Juste, a taxi driver and a priest, were awarded damages against Duvalier worth $750,000 and $1 million respectively by a U.S. court in 1988.

At the time, the U.S. District Court in Miami also ordered $504 million to be paid to the Haitian people under the Alien Tort Claims Act, according to Miami attorney Ira J. Kurzban who represented the claimants in the case.

Last week, a senior Swiss Foreign Ministry official warned that the money in Duvalier's Swiss accounts would soon have to be released because all legal means to retain it had been exhausted.

The head of the ministry's international law department, Paul Seger, said the government in Haiti had tried to recover millions of dollars allegedly stolen by Duvalier from public funds before he was ousted in 1986.

But the international judicial process ground to a halt in the chaos that engulfed the Caribbean country after the fall of Duvalier's regime, and a temporary freeze on the accounts imposed by the Swiss government is due to expire on June 3. The block was put in place five years ago to allow more time for claims by Haitian officials and private individuals to be examined in the Swiss courts.

Wednesday's ruling affects only one account, held at the Geneva branch of Swiss bank UBS AG, Henzelin said.

He added that it was not known at this point how much money was deposited on the account, which is held in the name of the "Brouilly Foundation" in the tiny principality of Liechtenstein. The foundation is controlled by a Panama-based company, which in turn is owned by members of the Duvalier family.

Duvalier had at least two further accounts in Lausanne and Zurich, though the latter could have been closed, Henzelin said.

Unless the Swiss government extends the freeze on the other accounts to allow further victims of Duvalier's regime to come forward with their claims, Duvalier's family will gain access to those funds on Monday.

Last week Haitian Foreign Minister Jean Renald Clerisme said a Central Bank official would be sent to Switzerland to make a final attempt at recovering some or all of the money.

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press

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