Sunday, May 16, 2021

Swiss court blocks freeze of $900m belonging to Angolan businessman accused of money laundering

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Switzerland’s top court this month partially ruled against a freeze on $900 million belonging to a jailed Angolan businessman, citing insufficient evidence for money laundering alleged by prosecutors.

The ruling reverses part of one of the largest personal asset freezes in Swiss history, levied by prosecutors in 2018 and upheld by a court last year, though the precise amount due to be potentially unfrozen was not specified.

Carlos Manuel de Sao Vicente was a key figure in Angola’s oil industry, heading a group of companies called AAA International which sold insurance contracts to state oil company Sonangol over nearly two decades of bumper profits.

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The ruling covers funds related to that company and not those held separately in De Sao Vicente’s name. Lawyers for the AAA International declined to elaborate, saying the various sums involved are not public information.

According to a copy of the unpublished March 10 decision obtained by Reuters, the Supreme Court in Lausanne said that prosecutors “did not precisely determine, as it was their task to do, the predicate offences for money laundering necessary to justify the upholding of a seizure on the bank assets of the appellant”.

“The appellant has given explanations for each of the (bank) activities deemed problematic by the public prosecutor”, the court added.

The supreme court’s ruling is final and cannot be appealed, but it kept the freeze on the company’s funds in place pending its request for the lower court to reconsider its decision.

The Swiss public prosecutor did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment on the court’s ruling.

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‘LEGITIMATE REIMBURSEMENT’

Prosecutors said in the original court filing they had frozen $1.25 billion in accounts associated with de Sao Vicente, his family and companies after Swiss banks flagged transfers to them as suspicious.

They released most of the accounts in April 2019 save for two which were in de Sao Vicente’s name.

De Sao Vicente, who has been jailed on suspicion of corruption in Angola since late last year, has described the transfers between 2012 to 2019 as legitimate reimbursement for loans he had made earlier.

Angolan prosecutors did not respond to a Reuters request for comment on the ruling. Court filings to date suggest there has been no request by Angola for a repatriation of funds.

De Sao Vicente’s wife, whose name along with those of other family members are attached to bank accounts originally blocked and then released by the Swiss prosecutors, is Irene Neto, a former deputy minister from Angola’s ruling party and daughter of Angola’s former president.

Neto denies any role in his businesses or any corruption.

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Lawyers for de Sao Vicente’s company AAA International told Reuters the ruling vindicates him as a legitimate businessman and that they expect the freeze on all his accounts to eventually be lifted.

“Even if the decision concerns only AAA International, the message the Supreme Court sends to the Geneva authorities is valid for the entire seizure,” Sonja Maeder Morvan of Geneva-based Reiser Avocats told Reuters.

Angola, which draws a third of state revenues from oil, is seeking to defy decades of perceived corruption and nepotism as it seeks to attract foreign investment to its flagging economy.

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