Switzerland has frozen more than $1 billion connected to leaders who were toppled or are still being battled in Arab Spring uprisings, a top Swiss official told reporters Tuesday.
The bulk of the money -- more than $750 million -- was stashed away by former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his associates, Valentin Zellweger said at a briefing in Geneva. The rest is tied to Syrian President Bashar Assad, former Tunisian leader Zine el Abidine ben Ali and the late Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi, according to news reports.
Zellweger, who heads the international law department at the Swiss Foreign Ministry, told reporters that the money "is blocked in the framework of Arab Spring," the Associated Press reported. The government reportedly began freezing the funds in early 2011, as protests began to sweep the Middle East.
In times of political upheaval, the Swiss government can freeze the assets of political leaders and their entourages in order to stop money deposited in Switzerland from being shunted elsewhere, according to the Foreign Ministry.
The ultimate goal is to return any pilfered funds to their countries.
Switzerland has sought to shake off its image as the banker to scofflaws. "The Swiss government has made it very clear that funds of illegal origin are not welcome in Switzerland," Zellweger told Reuters television.
Turning the money over to Arab Spring countries could take years, as Swiss authorities pore over evidence that the money was illegally acquired before attempting to return it.
In the past, Switzerland has sent back money from the late leaders Mobutu Sese Seko of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, among other cases.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Valentin Zellweger, head of the Swiss Foreign Ministry's international law department, speaks at a news conference in Geneva on Tuesday. Credit: Salvatore Di Nolfi / Keystone / Associated Press