The National Financial Prosecutor (PNF) in Paris has announced the opening of the preliminary investigation into former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s assets, and those of his entourage, following the January 2011 Revolution which brought about his ouster.
The PNF, which is responsible for all cases of allegedly ill-gotten gains, has confirmed that the investigation is in the hands of examining magistrate Dominique Blanc. However, not many assets appear to have been identified. The PNF insists that without information provided by Egypt, there’s not much that it can do.
This claim notwithstanding, a document published by the Egyptian authorities in 2011 lists a luxurious property in the heart of the French capital that does not seem to have aroused the interest of the Parisian justice or tax authorities, which were nevertheless obliged to apply an EU asset-freezing order. Despite such an order being in place, the 334 square metre apartment remains in use.
The property is located on the first floor of a building on Rue Bertie Albrecht in the upmarket 8th arrondissement of Paris. The rumour is that Mubarak’s family is the owner of the luxury apartment. “The owner?” asked one neighbour in response to our question. “Mubarak you mean? So what? Politics doesn’t intrigue me. All I can say is that the person who manages this place is very nice, very polite.”
Another more forthcoming neighbour told us that he sees limousines arrive at the building every weekend; their passengers are generally loaded with packages. “Everything seems very fancy,” we were told. “Almost with a mafia-like feel.” The owner of this apartment, we were assured, is none other than Mubarak’s daughter-in-law, Khadija El-Gammal.
Checks with the relevant property registration authorities in Paris confirmed that El-Gammal is indeed the owner of the apartment, which is valued at €3,600,000, having been purchased for €2,900,000 in 2009. The company which sold it was SCI Mac Etoile, managed by French realtor Francois Bennaceur. His name rose to prominence after the Tunisian revolution. He is a friend of the ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family and, according to Libération and Jeune Afrique, sold a property to Ben Ali’s daughter. Bennaceur’s name is often associated with controversial individuals and those in show business.
When we asked Bennaceur about his alleged connections to Middle Eastern dictators, he told us that the Ben Ali family are his friends. “I helped them to obtain a building,” the realtor explained. “As for Mubarak’s daughter-in-law or others, I do not recall, as I sell hundreds of apartments. I have no recollection of names or details. I don’t keep track. My job is to buy and sell, not to question.”
To no one’s surprise, Bennaceur told us that he has never been questioned by investigators about selling the property on Rue Bertie Albrecht, which remains subject to an EU asset freeze order. “We cannot comment on a case in progress,” insisted the PNF when confronted about this. “The investigation is ongoing.”
On 21 February, 2011, ten days after Mubarak’s ouster, Switzerland imposed a freezing order on assets belonging to the former autocrat and his clique. The European Union then followed suit, imposing a similar order against the same individuals as well as five other personalities, due to alleged misappropriation of funds.
The purpose of such measures is to prevent any disposal of the assets, whether they are tied up in bank accounts, companies, real estate or luxury goods. In Switzerland, the value of the funds frozen by the authorities was close to 700 million Swiss Francs, or nearly €620 million. In France, however, the tax authorities have never disclosed the exact amount blocked by its own officials, let alone the nature of the properties belonging to the extended Mubarak family.
Khadija El-Gammal’s father, business tycoon Mahmoud El-Gammal, was included in Egypt’s national prosecution order number 40 in 2011 under court order 27 for the same year. However, he was not included in the travel ban. He left for Paris on 9 September, 2012 while his daughter was still banned from travelling. Her ban was not lifted until December 2015.
One of the neighbours on Rue Bertie Albrecht agreed to speak to us on condition of anonymity and said that there has been minor construction work at the apartment since 2013. When asked about the owner, the source replied, “Khadija El-Gammal’s father.” Given that the official records now show the owner to be Khadija El-Gammal herself, then this suggests that the freezing order has been flouted. Is France not obliged to abide by an EU asset-freezing order?
There appears, therefore, to have been a clear breach of the order, but whose responsibility is it to act on this? The French Monetary and Financial Code defines the assets covered by a freezing measure as property of “any kind, tangible, intangible, movable or immovable” of which any “change” and any “use” must be prevented by the authorities, tax authorities and other financial actors.
Regardless of whether the apartment is currently being rented to a third party or is owned and occupied by Khadija El-Gammal, both instances would constitute an undeniable violation of the EU freezing order. According to Paris-based lawyer Thierry Vallat, only the publication of a “legal mortgage” to the property file would count. This is missing from the information provided by the tax authorities. If the latter indicate that it is possible for individuals to benefit from such housing, then that implies that the property was not even included among the assets frozen in the first place.
The first investigations of ill-gotten gains go back to the complaints lodged in 2007 by Transparency International and civil society organisation Sherpa against Omar Bongo (Gabon), Denis Sassou-Nguesso (Republic of Congo) and Teodoro Obiang Nguema (Equatorial Guinea). In 2011, the Arab Spring offered an opportunity for NGOs to join the civil movement and lodge similar complaints about Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, as well as other dictators in the region, such as Ben Ali, Bashar Al-Assad of Syria and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
The National Financial Prosecutor’s office in France told us that it cannot answer questions about an ongoing case, and yet it has invoked the need for good cooperation between the Egyptian and French authorities. Given that the property was already mentioned in Egyptian documents dated 2011, it’s doubtful that that French authorities are unable to apply the asset-freeze to the apartment on Rue Bertie Albrecht or subject those in breach of the order to sanctions. A source close to the Egyptian justice system claims that this case has not even been looked at for at least four years.
According to Agatino Camarda, the Director of the Civil Forum for Asset Recovery (CiFAR), “In principle, the French authorities should ensure that all EU freezing orders are complied with and should ensure that those in the financial, legal and real estate sectors are informed of the regulations and are in fact complying with them. If there is evidence that a breach of the asset freeze order has occurred, we would expect the French authorities to investigate.”
The founder of Crim’HALT, a French organisation which concerns itself with “citizens’ reflections on serious crime”, explained that the fact that the French authorities have still not frozen or seized the property of Mubarak’s daughter-in-law demonstrate the vague legal framework surrounding both the freezing and seizure of assets. “Property seizure in France has come a long way, and for good reason, because it started from scratch,” serious crime specialist Fabrice Rizzoli pointed out. “Unfortunately, though, there are still many obstacles to effective seizures and even more with regard to the social use of such assets which really should be confiscated.”
According to Rizzoli, the silence of the judiciary and the associations that initiated the investigation, seven years after their announcements, demonstrates a lack of transparency and highlights the imperfection of the current legislation in this area. The French authorities appear to have their eyes closed to Hosni Mubarak’s ill-gotten gains.
This a collaborative cross-border investigation, part of the Mediterranean Investigative programme made under the supervision of the Civil Forum of Asset Recovery (CiFAR) and support of the German development agency, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.