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US moves to recover $458m stolen by Abacha

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The United States said Wednesday it
had ordered a freeze on $458 million in assets stolen by former Nigerian
dictator Sani Abacha and his accomplices and hidden in European
accounts.
The Justice Department said the corruption proceeds — stashed away
in bank accounts in Britain, France and Jersey — were frozen at
Washington’s request with the help of local authorities.
Abacha died in office in 1998, but his surviving relatives still include some
of the richest and most influential figures in Africa’s most populous
nation.
According to a civil forfeiture
complaint unsealed in the US
District Court in Washington,
the department wants the recover
more than $550 million in
connection with the action.
“This is the largest civil
forfeiture action to recover the
proceeds of foreign official
corruption ever brought by the
department,” said Mythili
Raman, acting assistant attorney
general.
“General Abacha was one of the
most notorious kleptocrats in memory, who embezzled billions from the
people of Nigeria while millions lived in poverty,” she said.
The Justice Department said the assets frozen — along with additional
assets named in the complaint — represent the “proceeds of corruption”
during and after the military regime of Abacha, who became president of
Nigeria through a military coup on November 17, 1993 and held that
office until his death on June 8, 1998.
The complaint alleges that Abacha, his son Mohammed Sani Abacha,
their associate Abubakar Atiku Bagudu and others “embezzled,
misappropriated and extorted billions from the government of Nigeria
and others, then laundered their criminal proceeds through the purchase
of bonds backed by the United States using US financial institutions.”
Raman said that the action sends a “clear message” that the United
States is “determined and equipped to confiscate the ill-gotten riches of
corrupt leaders who drain the resources of their countries.”
– Return funds ‘where appropriate’ –
The US government’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative “where
appropriate” provides for the return of stolen proceeds “to benefit the
people harmed by these acts of corruption and abuse of office.”
It did not specify what action would be taken with regard to the Abacha
case.
The funds frozen include approximately $313 million in two bank
accounts in the Bailiwick of Jersey and $145 million in two bank
accounts in France, the department said.
Four investment portfolios and three bank accounts in Britain were
frozed, with an estimated value of at least $100 million but the exact
amounts in the accounts have not yet been determined, it said.
The Justice Department said that on February 25 and 26, authorities
in Jersey, France and Britain complied with the US action to freeze
the assets.
The complaint also seeks to freeze five corporate entities registered in the
British Virgin Islands.
According to the complaint, Abacha and others systematically embezzled
billions of dollars in public funds from Nigeria’s central bank on the false
pretense that the funds were necessary for national security. They
withdrew the funds in cash and then moved the money overseas through
US financial institutions.
Abacha and his finance minister, Anthony Ani, also allegedly caused the
Nigerian government to buy Nigerian government bonds at vastly inflated
prices from a company controlled by Bagudu and Mohammed Abacha.
That operation created an an illegal windfall of more than $282 million.
In addition, Abacha and his co-conspirators allegedly extorted more
than $11 million from a French civil engineering company, Dumez, and
its Nigerian affiliate in connection with payments on government
contracts.
Funds involved in each of these schemes were laundered through the
United States in nine financial institutions, the complaint alleged.
The financial institutions involved include Citibank, Chase Manhattan
Bank and Morgan Guaranty Trust Company, now JPMorgan Chase,
and New York-based units of Britain’s Barclays Bank and Germany’s
Commerzbank.

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