Former HSBC Switzerland worker and whistleblower Hervé Falciani has been sentenced to five years in prison for economic espionage. But it is questionable if the French citizen will serve any of the sentence as he remains a fugitive in his native country.
The Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona delivered its verdict on Friday following a trial in absentia. The jail sentence comes in spite of Falciani being acquitted of other offences, including violating trade secrets.
In an interview published on Saturday by the French-language Swiss newspaper Le Matin, Falciani said it was "ridiculous" that the Swiss court does not recognise him as a whistleblower.
The former IT worker stole details of client accounts held at HSBC’s private bank in Geneva and passed them on to the French authorities. The data, which is believed to contain details of some 106,000 clients, was later passed to other countries by former French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde – the so-called ‘Lagarde list’.
Falciani was questioned by Swiss police, but fled to France in 2008, having been released to visit his family in Geneva. He has since evaded Swiss justice after unsuccessful attempts to extradite him from France and Spain, where he also lived for a short time.
He had at one point indicated he would attend the Bellinzona court hearing, but later said he would remain in France. At a press conference held just before the trial, he said that the trial was “politically motivated”.
He also told journalists that he was not running away from a possible jail term by staying in France. “I prefer to go through 190 extradition trials in 190 different countries to see whether they back the Swiss position. Spain has confirmed loudly that it doesn’t support it. The Swiss position is just a position," he said at the October press conference.
"And I contest it, even if what happens may be another blow. By keeping a low profile I could avoid prison. But I haven’t chosen the easy path. It’s about being coherent.”
Falciani claimed in various media interviews that his social conscience had driven him to disclose details of how HSBC helped international clients evade taxes.
But Swiss prosecutors, who had asked for a six-year jail term, said he was motivated by greed, having tried to sell the data in Lebanon under an assumed identity before trying his luck in France.
HSBC said in a statement that it welcomed the court’s decision.
“HSBC has always maintained that Falciani systematically stole clients’ information in order to sell it for his own personal financial gain,” the statement read. “The court heard that he was not motivated by whistleblowing intentions and that this was not a victimless crime.”
In February, Geneva's public prosecutor searched HSBC's lakeside office after opening a criminal inquiry into allegations of aggravated money laundering. In June, HSBC agreed to pay Geneva authorities CHF40 million to settle the investigation.
The United States, France, Belgium and Argentina have all opened criminal investigations into the bank.