Millions of aid money snatched back from Haiti dictator

Tim Edwards

Switzerland's government stepped in this week to avert a public relations catastrophe after the country's highest court diverted money previously awarded to aid groups working in Haiti to its hated former dictator Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier.

Baby Doc stole millions of dollars from the people of Haiti and stashed it in Swiss bank accounts before he fled the country in 1986. Prior to last month's earthquake, a lower court had handed the $5.7m to aid groups working in Haiti, but the Swiss Federal Supreme Court's ruling reversed that decision on a technicality: namely that the statute of limitations on crimes committed by Baby Doc had expired in 2001.

The ruling in favour of Baby Doc was first made on January 12, just hours before a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, but it was only made public yesterday. Such delays are common in Swiss justice, although the timing surrounding this case could be seen as particularly favourable to the disaster-stricken island.

Why? Because the Swiss government, keen to shed the country's reputation as a safe haven for the ill-gotten gains of dictators and corrupt regimes the world over, has issued an emergency decree to freeze the money until it can pass a law that will allow the money to be diverted to the Haitian aid groups. The new law, which will deal with assets of "criminal origin" could be ready as early as this month – although a timeframe of 2011 seems more likely.

Swiss justice minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said: "We assume that this money doesn't belong to the Duvalier family. We've blocked the money again today to prevent it going somewhere that it shouldn't for political reasons. We really hope that this money finally goes back to the country."

The $5.7m, once it is transferred to Haiti, will bring the total money 'donated' to the country by Baby Doc to $13.7m - far ahead of the likes of Angelina Jolie and George Clooney, who each gave $1m. In an email published by the Daily Beast just days after the earthquake struck, the former dictator pledged $8m to the American Red Cross for relief work.

"It is with great horror and a profound emotion, but also with a very great concern, that I have monitored the murderous and devastating consequences of the terrible earthquake that has so piteously struck our country," he wrote.

"In these hours of great national distress, my thoughts go out to the wounded, the victims, particularly the children and the youth, and their families and loved ones."