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US freezes US$458 million stolen by Abacha

WASHINGTON--The United States said Wednesday it had ordered a freeze on US$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 U.S. District Court in Washington, the department wants the recover more than US$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 Nov. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 US$313 million in two bank accounts in the Bailiwick of Jersey and US$145 million in two bank accounts in France, the department said.

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