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‘There are more people who watch James Bond movies than read Foreign Affairs magazine,’ says Swiss Foreign Ministry ambassador and legal adviser Valentin Zellweger. ‘That's the bitter truth.’Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Valentin Zellweger is on a mission to fight a perception shared around the world by the rich and penniless alike: that Switzerland is a haven for dirty money.

As of the head of international law at the Swiss foreign ministry in Bern, Mr. Zellweger has become the public face of the Swiss campaign to identify and return hundreds of millions of dollars in assets linked to the regimes thrown out of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt last year. Some 570 million Swiss francs ($588-million) linked to the regimes of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Moammar Gadhafi and Hosni Mubarak is currently frozen, and another 550 million francs has already been released.

The payoff, the Swiss hope, will be to show the world that they're serious about cracking down on dodgy bank accounts.

But although the Swiss have frozen the bank accounts of numerous corrupt rulers since initiating the policy a quarter-century ago, and given back some 1.7 billion Swiss francs in illicit assets to countries such as the Philippines, Peru, and Nigeria, the Swiss banking industry is having trouble shedding its reputation as the place where James Bond villains bank. "There are more people who watch James Bond movies than read Foreign Affairs magazine," Mr. Zellweger lamented in a recent interview. "That's the bitter truth."

There's a lot at stake. The financial centres of Zurich and Geneva not only cater to the world's rich but are vital economic engines for the country. And there have been a few high-profile setbacks, such as a failed 12-year attempt to return funds to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mr. Zellweger says some of the biggest challenges are the length of the process and the deep pockets of the individuals whose assets are frozen. They can afford top lawyers and fight every decision.

Finding the money can also be tricky as individuals typically weave a "complex web of corporate structures" to make sure it stays hidden, according to Gretta Fenner Zinkernagel, managing director at the Basel Institute on Governance.

Indeed, investigators in Libya allege "tens of billions of dollars" of the country's assets are still tucked away, unfrozen, in Switzerland's banks, The New York Times reported this month. A spokeswoman for Switzerland's State Secretariat for Economic Affairs said they have no information about such assets and therefore can't comment.

There are also big hurdles within Switzerland itself. While the biggest banks understand dealing with dictators isn't worth the risk, others in the industry are less aware, according to Mr. Zellweger. There are also judgment calls: A powerful individual may have legitimate assets, such as an inheritance, or may have had a Swiss bank account before coming to power, he said.

Despite the difficulties, Ms. Fenner Zinkernagel believes Switzerland must do more to increase transparency in financial transactions and prevent money-laundering. The Basel think tank recently released a survey on the risk of money-laundering and terrorist financing in 144 countries: Switzerland was ranked 71st, making it riskier than such countries as Mexico, Brazil and Italy. Canada ranked 110th.

The Swiss aren't the only ones finding illegal funds in their banks. In a meeting last month, the G8 leaders called for the return of stolen assets from North Africa. Canada passed a special law last year when the dictators of Tunisia and Egypt were toppled that allowed it to move quickly and freeze assets belonging to the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes.

But Mr. Zellweger notes Switzerland froze the assets of the Mubarak regime just 30 minutes after he left office. In both Egypt and Tunisia, "We are the country that is the furthest along in the legal process in returning the money," he said.

Blocking bank accounts isn't the only tool the Swiss use to recover illicit assets. The federal prosecutor's office last year opened investigations into alleged money-laundering and criminal ties linked to the ousted regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. Mr. Ben Ali's brother-in-law Belhassen Trabelsi, who fled to Canada, is a target of the Swiss government's Tunisian investigation, according to Swiss press reports.

Such probes can also help quicken the return of the illicit assets, according to Mr. Zellweger. "Everyone talks a lot about banking secrecy," he said. "There is no banking secrecy when it comes to criminal offences."

Special to The Globe and Mail