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Is Ben Ali's gold being smuggled out of Tunisia through France?

AFP

Hundreds of bars of gold have been smuggled out of Tunisia since the fall of former strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, according to a French newspaper investigation, which claims the authorities in Paris have ignored the suspicious shipments.

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Some 1,800 bars of gold have been smuggled out of Tunisia through French airports since the fall in 2011 of former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, French newspaper Nice Matin reported on Sunday.

The gold, totalling almost 72 million euros in value, was smuggled out of the north African country bit by bit by mules, according to the investigation. For more than a year, significant amounts of gold were declared at Nice, Marseilles, Paris Orly and Paris Roissy Charles de Gaulle airports. All of the arrivals then travelled onto either Dubai or Istanbul.

Considered “common goods” by the European Union, gold bars must be declared at the customs office upon arrival in an EU member state, whereupon the shipment is considered legal. But travelling with gold is a rarity, according to airport officials.

Authorities turning a blind eye

“Hardly anybody ever, ever, comes to declare gold,” a customs officer at Nice airport was quoted as telling the newspaper. “So when several Tunisians turned up wanting to declare 10, 20, 40 kilograms of gold, we knew there was something going on.”

Former Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s lawyer, Akram Azoury, has denied his client had any connection with information concerning the alleged smuggling of gold bars out of Tunisia into France.
 

According to the investigation, at least one customs officer raised the alert, but was ignored.

“When we found out the same thing was happening in Marseille and Paris, we informed our superiors,” the officer said. Another staff member who spoke to the newspaper said that officers in Marseille were also suspicious. “For us, it had to be either Ben Ali’s gold, or [ousted Libyan dictator Muammar] Gaddafi’s”, the source was reported as telling the paper.

But despite informing the National Directorate of the Intelligence and Customs Investigations (DNRED), the officers’ alarm signals went ignored. “We were at no point told to intervene,” the officer in Nice told the paper.

Suspicious coincidence

In a suspicious coincidence, the gold transfers began just weeks after former first lady Leila Trabelsi is believed to have withdrawn 1.5 tonnes of gold (worth €45m) from the Central Bank of Tunisia, shortly after the fall of her husband’s regime and despite the freezing of the family’s assets.

Reports of the massive withdrawal of gold and of its transfer to Saudi Arabia, where the Ben Ali clan had fled, have never been confirmed.

According to the newspaper’s source in Nice, there is “no official record” of the unusual traffic of gold bars. The French customs office has so far refused to comment. An official from the Budget Ministry told the newspaper that it was seeking “clarification” on the issue.

But a further declaration at Nice airport last week suggested that the deliveries were not yet finished. Some 12 kilos of gold, arriving with a mule from the northern Tunisian town of Djerba, were registered at the airport on February 13.

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