Taiwan seeks return of 'criminal income' from frigate scandal

A Lafayette-class frigate of the Taiwan navy taking part in an exercise off the southern naval base of Tsoying in 2014

Taiwan is seeking the return of hundreds of millions of dollars in ill-gotten funds linked to a controversial deal to buy French frigates over two decades ago, prosecutors said Tuesday.

Taipei signed a $2.8 billion deal to buy six Lafayette-class frigates in 1991, a deal which strained French ties with China at the time and was later found tainted by up to $400 million in bribes.

Taiwanese arms dealer Andrew Wang was indicted for corruption in 2006 for reaping hundreds of millions of dollars from the deal, and his family were also found guilty as his accomplices.

Wang and his family were put on Taiwan's most wanted list after they fled the island shortly before the scandal broke in 1993. He died in London in 2015 aged 87.

During investigations, Taiwanese authorities asked countries including Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg and Austria to freeze the suspects' bank accounts.

Prosecutors now want that money returned.

Tuesday's announcement came after the Supreme Court made a final ruling last month ordering prosecutors to confiscate $312.53 million of "criminal income" linked to the Lafayette scandal.

"We will actively consult with countries including Switzerland over the return of the funds to ensure the universal legal value that 'no-one can keep criminal income' is upheld," the Taipei district prosecutor's office said in a statement.

Prosecutors dropped the charges against Wang after he died, but have continued to pursue family members to seek the return of ill-gotten funds.

Swiss authorities have already returned around $35 million linked to the case from the accounts of former navy captain Kuo Li-heng and his brother.

Kuo -- then working for the navy's submarine building project -- was convicted of taking bribes to facilitate the deal, and his brother was indicted on money laundering charges.

Allegations of backhanders emerged after the body of an officer who ran the Taiwan navy's weapons acquisitions office was found floating in the sea off the island's east coast in 1993.

A French judicial probe opened in 2001 to investigate claims that much of the money paid by Taiwan went towards commissions to middlemen, politicians and military officers on the island, as well as in China and France.

Taiwan's highest anti-graft body concluded in the same year that as much as $400 million in bribes may have been paid throughout the course of the deal.

In 2011, Taiwan received $875 million from Thales after the French defence giant lost an appeal over wrongful payment of commission on the warship deal.

A Lafayette-class frigate of the Taiwan navy taking part in an exercise off the southern naval base of Tsoying in 2014