Ben Ali with his wife Laila
The Swiss government today pledged to freeze assets belonging to the deposed Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his associates, as the race began to track down their hidden billions.
Tunisian human rights campaigners and opposition members are attempting to unravel the web of assets believed to spread from Canada and South America to the Gulf, and draw up a "blacklist" of misappropriated funds and properties.
At the same time, a Tunis prosecutor opened an independent investigation into the overseas assets of the ousted leader and his family, amassed during his 23 years in power. Much of the fortune, allegedly made from pillaging the economy and businesses, is believed to be held in luxury property and secret bank accounts.
A number of countries, including France, are examining requests to identify and block any movement of funds belonging to the Ben Ali regime, including relatives of his second wife, Leila Trabelsi, notorious for their greed and corruption.
The former first lady was reported to have fled last week to Saudi Arabia with 1.5 tonnes of gold worth €50m (£42m).
The Ben Ali-Trabelsi clan, described in secret US cables as a "quasi-mafia", was extensive. Trabelsi was one of 11 children and her offspring – as well as stepchildren, nephews, cousins and relatives by marriage – profited from their absolute hold on power and control of the economy.
Forbes estimated the president's fortune at about $5bn in 2008, but the Trabelsi family is believed to have amassed several hundred million euros more. The Tunisian writer Abdelaziz Belkhodja circulated a 7,000-word document outlining the suspected pillaging on Facebook today (login required). He said most of the ill-gotten gains were from the illegal privatising of national assets and companies.
"Ben Ali accepted and hid the mafia-like practices of his immediate entourage in full view and with the knowledge of everyone and with the complicity of several members of all state bodies," he wrote. "Every sector of the economy of the country was affected by the rapacity of Ben Ali's family and associates." He claimed family members:
• Took control of the Bank of Tunisia and were granted licences to set up banks, pocketing enormous commissions.
• Ran Tunisia's lucrative tuna fishing and export business.
• Had exclusive licences to import vehicles and controlled airports, harbours, tourist attractions, hotels, housing and even the black market in alcohol.
• Controlled the country's internet provider, mobile telephone networks, radio and television and sections of the media.
Other assets are said to include an estate worth £1.2m in Westmount, near Montreal, a property on the Rue de Rhone in Geneva and a Falcon 9000 jet parked at Geneva airport. In France, investigations centre on an apartment on the chic Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré in Paris valued at €37m, an apartment in Courchevel ski resort and a villa on the French Riviera.
Belkhodja said Ben Ali and his associates had accumulated riches with an "arrogance which throws light on the mentality of these people who had no political conscience but were convinced Tunisia belonged to them. These scandals must never be forgotten so the people who have brought this country to its knees will pay for their misdoings."
Tanzanian "fisadis" beware your time is coming