Former Spanish king could face legal troubles in Switzerland

King Juan Carlos kisses the hand of then Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey during an official reception in 2011 at the Federal Palace in Bern. Keystone / Lukas Lehmann

Allegations of corruption surrounding Juan Carlos are prompting investigations in Switzerland too. These may prove helpful for Spanish prosecutors and have led to the re-opening of a case against a former lover of the ex-Spanish monarch. 

This content was published on August 7, 2020 - 08:59

Juan Carlos is said to have received $100 million (CHF91.2 million) from the then-king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, in 2008. According to media reports, there are suspicions that this donation was a bribe or kickback payment in connection with the construction of a high-speed train from Medina to Mecca. In 2011, the contract was allegedly awarded to a Spanish consortium, mediated by Juan Carlos.  

The sum was initially paid untaxed into an account of the Geneva-based private bank Mirabaud in the name of the Lucum Foundation, based in Panama. According to the Tribune de Genève newspaper, Juan Carlos was the main beneficiary of this foundation.   

In 2012, Juan Carlos allegedly donated part of the money – €65 million ($77 million) – to his then-lover, Corinna Larsen. The money was transferred to an account of another Geneva private bank in the Bahamas.  

According to the Tribune de Genève, since 2018 Geneva's public prosecutor, Yves Bertossa, has been investigating Corinna Larsen and two other people – an asset manager and a lawyer in Switzerland, who headed the foundation – for money laundering. The Spanish judicial authorities are also investigating. Bertossa would not comment on the investigations to swissinfo.ch.  

The presumption of innocence applies to all those named.  

Can Juan Carlos even be convicted?   

Juan Carlos was king of Spain until June 2014. After a series of scandals, he abdicated and handed the crown to his son Felipe. According to the Spanish Constitution, "the person of the king is inviolable and cannot be held responsible". This means that during his reign, the king enjoys immunity and is "untouchable".   

The lawyer Ignasi Guardans, professor emeritus of private international law in Spain and former member of the Spanish and European parliaments, says: "The prevailing opinion among lawyers in Spain is that Juan Carlos cannot be prosecuted for offences committed before June 2014, but only after his abdication.”  

However, some criminal activities could have continued after 2014. It therefore remains an open question whether Juan Carlos will be tried in Spain. In August 2020, the former king left Spain, but announced that he would remain at the disposal of the justice system.  

Does immunity apply in Switzerland too?

"According to the principles of international law, the immunity guaranteed in the constitution also applies abroad. Switzerland must respect what the Spanish constitution says about the king's inviolability," Guardans says.   

According to law professor Frank Meyer of the University of Zurich, however, the Spanish inviolability regulation has no direct effect in Switzerland. Juan Carlos could, however, enjoy "functional immunity" as long as he was king.  

"But this immunity is linked to acting for the state as a public official, so if he acted as a private person, it does not apply." This last point remains unclear. First, it must be clarified which actions and periods of time are involved. And: "For subsequent money laundering actions, such immunity would not apply in the first place," Meyer says.  

How can Switzerland help Spain?  

"On 19 February 2020, the Federal Office of Justice received a request for judicial assistance in this matter," confirms Sonja Margelist of the Federal Office of Justice. "This was delegated to the Public Prosecutor's Office of the Canton of Geneva for execution on 9 March 2020."   

The Geneva public prosecutor's office declined to provide further information on the case to swissinfo.ch. However, according to the Spanish press, Switzerland already sent part of the requested documents on July 1, 2020. According to the daily El País, these Swiss documents state that €65 million was transferred from the Lucum Foundation's Swiss account in Panama to Corinna Larsen.   

Thanks to a request for administrative assistance from the Geneva public prosecutor's office to Spain, many details have come to light. As a result, Spain has re-opened proceedings against Corinna Larsen, which had initially been suspended due to lack of evidence.   

The material from Switzerland is therefore quite helpful to Spanish authorities, according to Guardans. 

"The judicial documents from Switzerland will become part of the trial in Spain," he says. "Everything that bears the signature of Bertossa is dead certain. All account information, statements, etcetera, flow directly into the process." In other words, the material from Switzerland is considered as evidence.  

How can Spain help Bertossa?  

Geneva has also submitted a request for legal assistance to Spain. According to the Spanish online newspaper Público, a kind of "pact" exists between Switzerland and Spain: the public prosecutors of both countries have agreed to split the investigation.  

According to the agreement, the Spanish public prosecutor's office is investigating Juan Carlos and the entrepreneurs who may have had something to do with the payments from Saudi Arabia, while the Geneva public prosecutor's office is investigating the other parties involved: Larsen and the asset manager and lawyer of Juan Carlos in Geneva. Spain is expected to soon reach an agreement with Corinna Larsen. The results could also prove relevant for Switzerland.   

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