Washington: The FBI has opened a preliminary probe into ousted Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his circle to determine whether they have any US assets, The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is teaming up with a new anti-kleptocracy squad at the Justice Department that is searching for fraudulent proceeds foreign officials have stashed away abroad, the Journal said, citing people familiar with the matter.
A week after a popular uprising toppled Ben Ali on January 14, the US Treasury warned financial institutions of a possible "flow of illicit assets" out of Tunisia, fearing government officials would seek to take proceeds from corruption out of the country.
The European Union has already slapped asset freezes on Ben Ali and his associates, and Tunisia has issued a warrant for the arrest of the former leader and his wife Leila Trabelsi for illegally transferring funds abroad.
"We are going to bring cases against the assets of those around the world who have stolen from their citizenry and have taken money that obviously belongs to their country," the Justice Department`s crime chief, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, told the Journal.
"Those people are the embodiment, in some ways, of what`s wrong in these countries."
His division`s Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section has been authorised to hire five lawyers to join a unit that seeks illicit assets belonging to senior foreign officials and return them to the countries to which they belong, the report said.
The Journal said the FBI had also added agents to the effort.
US financial institutions are required to especially scrutinise bank accounts held by or on behalf of foreign senior political officials.
The FBI probe is focused on determining whether Ben Ali has assets stashed in the United States or has used US financial institutions to move illicit assets, according to the Journal. Only then would the United States have the necessary jurisdiction to pursue a case.
The Swiss government has ordered a three-year freeze on any bank accounts or assets Ben Ali, his family or associates might have in Switzerland. The Foreign Ministry said the freeze has so far netted more than 10 million Swiss francs (USD 10.4 million).
French prosecutors have also opened an investigation into the Paris real estate assets of the ousted strongman after three activist groups filed a civil suit against him.
Interpol has issued a warrant to its 188 member countries to locate and arrest Ben Ali and six of his family members.
Ben Ali resigned abruptly and fled in disgrace on January 14 after a grisly suicide by a jobless young man snowballed into nationwide protests against high prices, rising unemployment and rampant corruption.