(Bloomberg) -- If you don’t succeed at first, try again.
Former HSBC Holdings Plc computer specialist Herve Falciani was nabbed Wednesday in Madrid by police after they said Swiss authorities called for his extradition to Switzerland, where he was convicted of stealing clients’ data in 2015. The Frenchman was to speak at a university event in the Spanish capital headlined “When Telling the Truth is Heroic: Shedding Light on Tax Havens.”
Falciani’s leak of the information to French authorities triggered tax-evasion probes across Europe, and he styles himself a whistle-blower. On Thursday, he appeared at a hearing in Madrid, where a judge turned down a request by Spanish prosecutors to hold him while the extradition request is considered. Falciani was released without bail, while required to surrender his passport and report weekly to police.
“Mr. Falciani is doing well and ready to cooperate,” Manuel Olle, his lawyer, told reporters in Madrid after the judge’s decision was announced. “We are, however, surprised by the arrest and hope that the case sticks to the facts.”
It’s the second time Swiss authorities have tried to get hold of him. Falciani was convicted in absentia on charges of industrial espionage, specifically for stealing data on thousands of clients from HSBC’s private bank in Geneva.
In his last interaction with Spanish law in July 2012, Falciani was arrested in Barcelona and spent six months in Valdemoro prison outside Madrid as local judges mulled an initial extradition request from the Swiss. Falciani played racquetball with members of Basque Terrorist group ETA to stay fit while in custody, he told the New Yorker magazine. A Spanish court rejected his extradition in 2013 because his actions in Switzerland weren’t illegal in Spain.
Marc Henzelin, Falciani’s Swiss lawyer, said the substance of his client’s case hasn’t changed, and so he doesn’t expect the Spanish will react any differently this time. Falciani was convicted of industrial espionage, which is considered a political crime against the state, and acquitted of charges he violated commercial and banking secrecy rules, Henzelin said.
Spain doesn’t make banking secrecy a key part of national law, unlike in Switzerland. Swiss federal prosecutors proceeded with an indictment of Falciani and he was put on trial in absentia in late 2015. During the trial, it emerged that Falciani had attempted to sell the client data he stole in Beirut using the pseudonym of Ruben Al-Chidiak, before deciding to leak it to the French government.
The thousands of dossiers he released were subsequently shared with French, Belgian, U.S. and U.K. authorities and were behind investigations into tax evasions by those countries’ citizens. The Swiss took a narrower view of his crimes, and Falciani was given a five-year prison sentence in November 2015.
Laurent Moreillon, HSBC’s lawyer, told reporters after the trial that Falciani’s “a thief and a liar,” and that his argument he was a whistle-blower was “pure invention and is a lesson to anyone who might try the same thing.”
Nevertheless, HSBC’s Swiss unit agreed to a pay penalty of 40 million Swiss francs ($42 million) to end a probe into allegations of money laundering by the Geneva prosecutor’s office and avoid criminal charges. A spokesman for the bank on Wednesday said it had nothing to add on the news of his arrest.
There has been some speculation that the timing of the Swiss request for Falciani’s extradition could be linked to political events in Spain. Spanish prosecutors are seeking the return of two pro-independence leaders who fled the nation for Switzerland earlier this year. Anna Gabriel was leader of the pro-independence party CUP while Carles Puigdemont served as president, and Marta Rovira was a member of the separatist party ERC.
Puigdemont, himself, was released on 75,000 euros ($92,000) bail in Germany after a court declined to consider a Spanish judge’s request to have Puigdemont extradited on rebellion charges. German prosecutors earlier this week backed the recommendation be sent to Spain to face of trying to illegally lead Catalonia to independence.
The canton of Geneva, where HSBC’s private bank is based, asked the Swiss Federal Office of Justice in February 2017 to issue an international arrest warrant for Falciani given his conviction, a spokesman for the FOJ said. The agency handles all requests for international legal assistance including in extradition cases.
The day after Falciani’s arrest on Wednesday, the FOJ submitted a formal request for extradition. It was last month that the Spanish authorities informed the Swiss that the arrest warrant would be valid in Spain, the spokesman said.
To contact the reporters on this story: Hugo Miller in Geneva at email@example.com, Maria Tadeo in Madrid at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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