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No regrets as Bertossa steps aside

Bertossa (left) successfully pursued former Kremlin aide Pavel Borodin


As Bernard Bertossa gives up the reins as Geneva chief prosecutor, he tells swissinfo about his crusade against white-collar criminals.

After 12 years in the post, Bertossa's name has become synonymous with the fight against money launderers. Where once Geneva was the favoured place for recycling the proceeds of crime, international criminals now think twice about depositing their ill-gotten gains in the city's banks.

His crusade has earned him respect and admiration in the international community, but also criticism from lawyers and bankers in Geneva. In an exclusive interview with swissinfo, the prosecutor says he has few regrets.

"I am satisfied that I've done what was necessary. I hope that during those 12 years, I have done something useful. My conscience is clear."

Job not finished

He is confident that the fight against dirty money will continue in his absence: "The job is never finished. But one prosecutor alone cannot do much. There are many other magistrates with the same conviction who are continuing the fight. It's not possible to go backwards. Policy will not change that much."

Among the high-profile money-laundering cases Bertossa has handled are those involving Raul Salinas, the brother of the former Mexican president, the French oil company, Elf, and the former Kremlin official, Pavel Borodin.

One that was less than successful involved alleged Russian mafia boss, Sergey Mikhailov, who was acquitted after spending two years on remand, and then won SFr800,000 in compensation from the Geneva authorities.

But despite this embarrassment, Bertossa has few regrets: "Since then, I've noted that those kinds of people - rich Russians whose activities aren't obviously legal - don't come to Geneva so much."

One of Bertossa's greatest achievements during his two terms of office has been to improve cooperation with magistrates in other countries. He has been quick to act when a request for legal assistance is requested.

"It is not a level playing field. Crime is international, but the judicial authorities are penned into their national boundaries. If we want to stand any chance of combating crime, we must have better cooperation between the national authorities," Bertossa explains.

Geneva Appeal

Cooperation, he admits, is not enough. But it is a first step on the road to an international judicial authority - a kind of European Prosecutor's office - something of which he is an ardent advocate.

To get the wheels of cooperation moving, Bertossa was the driving force behind the Geneva Appeal. This document, signed in 1996 by seven judges and prosecutors, became a blueprint for cross-border cooperation in the fight against corruption. It lifted the lid on the question of tax havens - and their role in international crime. Since then, countries like Switzerland have been forced to act.

Bertossa has consistently done more than any other figure to improve Switzerland's international reputation with regard to its relationship with the proceeds of crime.

It is difficult to say whether there is less dirty money being laundered in Switzerland today than when the combative, chain-smoking prosecutor took up the post 12 years ago. But it is certainly less welcome.

New federal legislation, which has resulted in a more cooperative attitude from Swiss banks, and a new judicial structure, whereby all money-laundering investigations are dealt with in Bern, mean there is now a single, coherent policy.

Dirty money not welcome

"Through our actions, we have sent a message abroad that Switzerland is no longer the right place to invest dirty money," Bertossa tells swissinfo.

"There's much more risk in using the Swiss financial market than before. Ten years ago the banks were not ready to cooperate. Today, they realise this image of dirty money is bad for business," he adds.

The election to succeed Bertossa was narrowly won by centre-right candidate, Daniel Zapelli. He has advocated greater "proximity" between the prosecutor and the people.

That echoes the views of a number of centre-right parties and lawyers, who feel that Bertossa has concentrated too heavily on catching the big fish of international crime and corruption, and not paid enough attention to the low-level crime that affects ordinary people in Geneva.

"That's not true. We've made great efforts to tackle local crime," the outgoing prosecutor says. "The reason people think that is because the high-profile cases get the media attention.

"I hope my successor will follow the same policy and I hope we won't go backwards in the fight against organised crime - but it is only a hope."

Bertossa points out that a certain amount of crime in Geneva is committed by immigrants. Many have fled their native lands because of poverty, which in turn has often been caused by corruption.

"You cannot separate local crime and international crime. In fighting corruption, we are also fighting local crime," he says.

Many have criticised Bertossa for immediately launching investigations and freezing accounts as soon as he receives a request for legal aid from abroad. Often the evidence is scant, and the costs of these investigations - not all of which reach a conclusion - are high. Bertossa is unrepentant.

"It wasn't me who decided that money-laundering was a crime. It was the politicians," he says. "If you don't start an investigation quickly enough, you may not be in a position to freeze the dirty money."

International stage

It is no secret that Bertossa, now one of the most instantly recognisable European judicial figures, would relish a role on the international stage. But for now, he has no concrete plans.

“Basically, I’m still a judge and a prosecutor. I’m not a politician. I have to stay in the area I know,” he says. “At the moment I have no specific proposal. I am not in a position to decide alone whether I should represent Switzerland in any kind of international organisation.”

There are those who could see the Geneva prosecutor in a role like that of International War Crimes Prosecutor – a post now filled by Switzerland’s former federal prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte.

Bertossa reveals the post could have been his: “I was asked a few years ago if I was interested in replacing the former prosecutor in The Hague. I decided not to be a candidate. A few years on, I don’t think I will change my mind.”

However, the imminent creation of an International Criminal Court could provide the right opening for a man of his qualities and appetite for justice.

by Roy Probert

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