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Tunisia seeks gold in former dictator's assets

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Economic woes stem partly from last year’s revolution, which spooked tourists and foreign investors while the eurozone crisis hobbled key trading partners. But the roots of trouble go deeper, to a regime that spent years neglecting rural regions and letting unemployment rise while amassing great wealth for itself.

“Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage,” wrote then-US Ambassador Robert F. Godec in a June 2008 diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, describing an extended family seen as “the nexus of Tunisian corruption.”

Tigers and French ice cream

A year later, Mr. Godec got a taste of regime opulence when Ben Ali’s son-in-law and heir-apparent, Sakher El Materi, invited him for dinner at his seaside villa. Godec’s July 2009 cable notes an infinity pool, ice cream flown in from St. Tropez, and a pet tiger named Pasha.

Ben Ali and most of his family fled Tunisia in January 2011 as protests brought down his regime. Two months later, then-interim president Fouad Embazaa ordered the seizure of assets belonging to 114 top regime figures, including Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi.

It’s unclear how much the assets – from cars, yachts, and palaces to major stakes in Tunisian companies – are worth. One estimate last September by a government commission put their total value at around $13 billion.

Ben Ali’s personal wealth is even harder to gauge, with most of his assets believed to be stashed abroad, says acting finance minister Slim Besbes. Many countries that froze his assets last year have been slow to unfreeze them – the European Union only did so last month – while other legal challenges remain.

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