The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Canada swooped in to freeze billions in Arab Spring assets: documents

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OTTAWA - Canadian authorities red-pencilled almost $4.3 billion in suspect assets belonging to dictators, allegedly corrupt officials and others in response to the Arab Spring uprisings, newly disclosed documents say.

An RCMP briefing note says the national police force's federal policing branch worked with the Foreign Affairs Department, Public Safety, security intelligence agencies and Canadian banks to "identify and freeze" the assets.

The note, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, paints a picture of the extent to which Canadian officials toiled behind the scenes to drain the financial lifeblood of Arab dictatorships.

The agencies relied on an array of sanctions and legislative tools to freeze money and property linked to regimes that toppled in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, as well as Syria, whose leadership has so far withstood intense pressure from opponents. Some of the probes continue.

However, privacy law and the confidentiality surrounding investigative efforts means only a portion of the $4.3 billion can be discussed and accounted for publicly.

Foreign Affairs says the vast majority of $2.2 billion that Canada seized under the auspices of United Nations Act sanctions has been released to the Libyan National Transitional Council following the demise of Moammar Gadhafi's regime.

An undisclosed amount seized under the Special Economic Measures Act was also released by last September. The act, known as SEMA, allows cabinet to impose sanctions when "a grave breach of international peace and security" has occurred and likely will result in a serious crisis.

Concerning Egypt and Tunisia, authorities zeroed in on residential property valued at $2.55 million and bank accounts containing a total of $122,000 using the Freezing of Assets of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act.

As the name suggests, the act allows Ottawa, upon the request of a foreign state, to temporarily freeze assets that former dictators and their entourage have placed in Canada.

"The investigation to identify assets is ongoing," said Foreign Affairs spokesman Jean-Bruno Villeneuve.

"We're working with both countries to transfer assets back to their citizens, but we require more information from the Tunisians and the Egyptians to be able to do so under Canadian law."

RCMP Cpl. Stephane Gagne of the force's proceeds of crime division confirmed that investigations continue. "In some of those files, the ball is in the other country's court."

The law essentially gives newly installed governments time to get their "ducks in a row" and show Canada that the corrupt officials in question indeed owned the assets, usually paving the way for return of the monies to the new government, said Gagne.

For reasons of privacy and commercial confidentiality, Foreign Affairs could not provide details about these amounts.

Undisclosed assets linked to Syria were also frozen under the Special Economic Measures Act.

In some cases, the money identified by authorities and Canadian banks ends up being unfrozen and freed for use by its owners. For instance, said Gagne, some "honest Canadians" working in Libya had their paycheques temporarily frozen.

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