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Justice minister faces political fallout

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The justice ministry has hit back at a parliamentary report criticising Christoph Blocher for his handling of the former chief prosecutor’s resignation.

This content was published on September 6, 2007 - 12:55

Blocher has been accused in the Swiss press of plotting to oust Valentin Roschacher. On Thursday newspapers called for greater transparency and clear facts.

Roschacher resigned as chief prosecutor in July last year following criticism of his conduct.

Several newspapers have accused Blocher of being involved in a plot to remove Roschacher to protect a banker friend, Oskar Holenweger, who is suspected of being caught up in a money-laundering case.

On Wednesday a parliamentary committee issued a report sharply criticising Blocher over his management of Roschacher’s departure, accusing him of bypassing the cabinet and overstepping his mandate.

In parallel, the government announced that it would appoint a legal expert to investigate exactly why the chief prosecutor resigned.

“Full of holes”

The justice ministry argued the parliamentary report was “full of holes” and “unbalanced”. It said it had asked the committee to review its draft last month, which it had ignored.

Blocher’s ministry said it “regretted” the claims made against their boss but said it was satisfied that the committee wanted to shed light on the whole affair.

It added that it was unaware of a possible conspiracy against the former chief prosecutor.

On Wednesday Blocher held a news conference denying his involvement in a conspiracy, calling press accusations “intolerable” and “dishonourable”.

Party politics

Swiss newspapers were swift to react to Wednesday’s revelations. Some said Blocher should resign, while others claimed his party, the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, would ultimately benefit in the forthcoming parliamentary elections due to take place in October, with elections to the Swiss cabinet scheduled for December.

“Who is going to benefit from this plot?” asked the French-language Le Matin newspaper, summarising the general feeling among many Swiss newspapers.

The Zurich-based Tages-Anzeiger said it was convinced that the Swiss People’s Party would be able to use the parliamentary report even if things got worse for Blocher, as they could portray him as a victim and mobilise voters.

For Hans Hirter, a political scientist at Bern University, it's too early to say what will happen, but he doesn't see the story affecting Blocher's standing among his own supporters.

"I'm not so sure if it will really damage him. For his supporters, this is an attack by foreign judges and elite journalists on their idol and it won't affect their belief in him,” he told swissinfo.

“Don't forget that the Swiss People's Party has already been talking about a secret plan to oust Blocher and the latest revelations will strengthen support for him."

As for affecting Blocher's standing among the rest of the public, Hirter believes the People's Party has already peaked in terms of its share of the vote.

Secret plan

Various newspapers made a connection between the parliamentary committee’s criticisms and recent public statements by the Swiss People’s Party of a “secret plan” to prevent Christoph Blocher being re-elected cabinet minister.

“That’s why the People’s Party has been so insistent about a secret plot to bring down their leader,” wrote the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and the Tages-Anzeiger newspapers.

But it remains unlikely that an ongoing investigation by a parliamentary control committee into the alleged plot to make Roschacher resign will actually influence voters.

The results of their enquiries in Germany are due to take several months, explained committee member Maria Roth-Bernasconi.

But for the Bern-based Bund newspaper: “The situation is unbearable and if Christoph Blocher actually abused his position as minister he should retire immediately.”

The Tages-Anzeiger added that while the parliamentary committee’s valid criticisms of Blocher are not that new, “the information over an alleged plot to bring down the federal prosecutor… brings a completely different dimension”.

swissinfo with agencies

Roschacher affair

Valentin Roschacher formally stepped down as prosecutor general on July 5, 2006 after coming in for heavy criticism over his handling of various issues.

Roschacher, who took over as federal prosecutor in March 2000, clashed with Blocher on several occasions prior to his departure.

According to the Blick newspaper, in October 2004 Blocher criticised Roschacher for not immediately deporting to Spain Mohamed Achraf, an alleged terrorist. Blocher placed a gagging order on the chief prosecutor and reprimanded him over the affair.

Trouble also flared following the publication of an article at the end of May 2006 in the weekly Weltwoche magazine. The story claimed that a Colombian informant and drug baron had duped Roschacher in a money-laundering case concerning a private banker, Oskar Holenweger.

The federal prosecutor rejected the allegation, saying his involvement was limited to contacts with the Colombian's lawyer. The justice ministry launched an “extraordinary investigation” into the prosecutor’s office but it was cleared by the Federal Court in September 2006.

According to the recent parliamentary report, a sub-committee was shown documents in August 2007 found by German police in Holenweger’s briefcase. The papers and electronic documents reveal a plan designed to remove Roschacher from office.

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