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In high court ruling on Haiti, Swiss make an awkward break with neutrality

By Eliane Engeler
Thursday, February 4, 2010; A10

GENEVA -- In an embarrassment to Switzerland's government, the country's top court said Wednesday that at least $4.6 million from Swiss bank accounts previously awarded to charities must be returned to the family of former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.

The decision was reached Jan. 12, just hours before the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti, killing as many as 150,000 people. The amount of money being contested could feed more than 1 million Haitians for two weeks.

The court's decision was not published until Wednesday, prompting the Swiss government to issue an emergency decree to keep the money frozen in a Swiss bank until a law can be passed allowing it to be donated to aid groups working in Haiti.

"This is a public relations disaster for Switzerland," said Mark Pieth, a professor at the University of Basel with experience in international corruption cases.

In the decision, Switzerland's Federal Court reversed a lower court's ruling that the money should have gone to aid groups in the impoverished nation because the statute of limitations on crimes committed by the Duvalier clan would have expired in 2001.

Delays between court verdicts and their public announcements are common in Switzerland, but the timing for this one was especially unfavorable. In addition to affecting Haiti's relief efforts, the ruling undermines Switzerland's efforts to shed its image as an investment haven for the world's dictators.

Many Haitians accuse Duvalier and his entourage of robbing millions of dollars from public funds before he was ousted in 1986. Duvalier is thought to reside in exile in France and has always denied wrongdoing.

-- Associated Press

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