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Apartheid victims launch class action against Swiss banks

US lawyer Ed Fagan, with one of his clients, Dorothy Molef, the mother of 1976 Soweto uprising victim, Hector Petersen

(Keystone)

An American lawyer representing victims of South Africa's former Apartheid regime is launching a class action against Swiss banks.

Ed Fagan - a US-based lawyer who has previously won class-action suits on behalf of Holocaust victims - said he would launch "multi-billion dollar" legal proceedings in New York against Switzerland's two largest banks, UBS and Credit Suisse, as well as the American bank, Citicorp.

Fagan announced details of the legal proceedings on Monday in the Swiss city of Zurich.

Although Fagan said he expected the suits to be filed on Monday in Manhattan federal court, the papers had not arrived by late in the day.

The lawyer alleges that banks provided funds to prop up the Apartheid government between 1985 and 1993 at a time when South Africa was running out of cash because of United Nations sanctions. Switzerland itself never joined UN sanctions against the Apartheid regime.

"No justice ever comes by saying to the defendent 'why don't you do the right thing?'," Fagan told swissinfo.

"You must make a demand, you place a legal claim, and then they [the banks] have to deal with it," he added.

Fagan's class action against the Swiss banks represents four separate groups: relatives of victims, victims of injustice, maltreated prisoners and people driven from their homes.

Fagan is well-known in Switzerland as the lawyer who represented Holocaust victims and their heirs who sued Swiss banks in the 1990s for their alleged role in financing the Nazi regime.

Response from banks

Claudia Kraaz, a spokeswoman for Credit Suisse, described the idea that the bank had been involved in any unjust activities in South Africa as "preposterous and unsubstantiated by the facts".

"Credit Suisse operated at all times according to all applicable laws and the Swiss government's regulations for doing business with South Africa, so there is no basis for this suit," Kraaz told swissinfo.

Christoph Meier, a spokesman for UBS, said Fagan's claims were "completely unjustified and groundless".

But Fagan said he believed the banks would have to face up to their dealings with the former South African government.

"They took the claims of the Holocaust victims as absurd, and they paid $1.25 billion," Fagan told swissinfo.

"Maybe the Swiss banks didn't understand history from 1984 onwards, and maybe they didn't understand that without the financing that they organised, Apartheid would have collapsed," he added.

Daniel Heeb, a Zurich-based consultant who represents Fagan's law firm in Europe, said the Swiss banks had "allowed the Apartheid regime to continue during the 1980s by propping up the country's debt and affording loans [to the government]".

Joining the class action

Fagan confirmed that at least 80 people had so far come forward to join the class action but he expected "thousands more" to come forward in the coming weeks.

The decision to take the banks to court was also announced at a separate press conference in the South African town of Soweto on Monday.

One of the victims being represented by Fagan is Lulu Petersen, whose brother was killed by Apartheid police during the Soweto uprising 26 years ago.

"We want reparations from those international companies and banks that profited from the blood and misery of our father and mothers and our brothers and sisters," she said.

Fagan is expected to launch similar class actions against banks and financial institutions in Germany, France and Britain. Three German banks - Commerzbank, Dresdner and Deutsche Bank - are thought to be next in line.

Fagan heckled

Earlier on Monday, a planned outdoor media conference hosted by Fagan on the city's Paradeplatz - home to the headquarters of both UBS and Credit Suisse - had to be abandoned when around 50 demonstrators disrupted the proceedings.

Chanting "Fagan go home" and "Fagan, we don't need you", the demonstrators forced the lawyer to move away from the square to a nearby hotel to continue briefing journalists about the class action.

"He's a rascal, a stinking lawyer who's only after money," said one man in the crowd, who jeered and pushed Fagan until he fled from the square.

swissinfo with agencies


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