Switzerland has confirmed cases of visa fraud at its embassy in Pakistan, blaming organised crime. It has closed the visa department of the Islamabad mission.
The authorities in Bern said on Monday they did not yet know the extent of the corruption. The announcement comes only three days before an official visit to Pakistan by Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey.
"The local mafia in Pakistan has attempted to influence the Swiss embassy's visa department," said Martin Dahinden, a senior foreign ministry official. Dahinden added that the criminal gangs had evidently been successful.
He said individuals involved with a human trafficking ring had most likely attempted to infiltrate the embassy's visa department, but there was not sufficient staff at the mission to prepare for such eventualities.
"We were not in a position to see what was taking place," he said. The irregularities were brought to Switzerland's attention by the police of other states.
Last month, the Pakistan authorities placed Swiss embassy employees under investigation for allegedly issuing hundreds of Swiss visas for Pakistani citizens immigrating illegally to Europe.
They were fingered by a Pakistani man working at the embassy who had been arrested earlier in the year on charges of sexual harassment. He allegedly demanded sex from two women seeking visas. Once in custody, he implicated other staff members.
However, Dahinden said none of the Swiss nationals working at the embassy were under investigation. He said Switzerland had approved Pakistan's request for legal assistance.
The foreign ministry will increase its embassy staff this week, which will enable it to reopen its visa department.
Foreign ministry spokesman Jean-Philippe Jeannerat said Calmy-Rey would use her visit later this week, focusing on development aid, to discuss the affair with embassy staff and Pakistani officials.
It is not the first case of visa fraud involving Swiss embassies. The authorities in Bern are currently examining cases at Swiss missions in Oman, Peru, Russia, Nigeria Serbia, and Eritrea.
The foreign ministry said it has introduced a series of measures to lower the risk of embassy officials accepting bribes in exchange for Swiss visas. The measures include more frequent inspections of visa offices and a catalogue of potential risks in certain countries.
Last November the former honorary Swiss consul in Oman was given a nine-month suspended prison sentence for falsifying visa application forms and charging over the odds for the travel documents.
swissinfo with agencies
The 141 Swiss missions abroad issue about 500,000 visas a year, while about 40,000 applications are rejected.
The number of visas issued is expected to drop to about 400,000 once the Europe's Schengen accord, doing away with border controls, comes into effect in Switzerland - at the earliest in 2008.
Switzerland is currently investigating cases of visa fraud in Oman, Peru, Russia, Nigeria, Serbia, Eritrea and Pakistan.