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Swiss banking system leaves no room for terrorists, says Villiger

Villiger restated Switzerland's commitment to fighting terrorism and organised crime

(Keystone)

The Swiss finance minister, Kaspar Villiger, has defended Switzerland's banking secrecy laws and pledged to join international efforts to search for money linked to terrorism, following last week's attacks in the United States.

"Switzerland is definitely not a safe haven for criminals nor terrorists, and the country's banking secrecy system provides no protection for such people," Villiger said at a press conference on Thursday.

His comment came after Britain's chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, said Switzerland must ensure that banking secrecy does not impede the search for terrorist funds.

"Switzerland is keen to reinforce the international fight against terrorism so that funds used for financing terrorism can be identified and blocked," the finance minister said.

"The high value that Switzerland puts on protecting the financial affairs of private individuals applies only to honest citizens and is immediately put aside in the case of criminal activities," he continued.

Villiger announced that one bank account possibly linked to the US terror attacks has been frozen in a Swiss investigation.

However, he said, "the measures taken so far...have revealed no indication that Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organisation have any funds in this country."

The Federal Banking Commission, Switzerland's banking watchdog, pledged to take whatever action was necessary after Brown called on Wednesday for international rules obliging financial institutions to report movements of suspected terrorist money.

"If there is an improvement in international standards, we will help and consider what we can do," commented Urs Zulauf, head of legal affairs and enforcement at the commission.

He added: "We are prepared not only to make banks improve the system, but also, if necessary, to ask that responsible managers are removed... We are even prepared to close a bank."

Terrorism not tolerated

Switzerland "cannot tolerate any terrorism and must help with international efforts to fight it," he said. He added "Bank secrecy will be waived within the framework of legal assistance cases where terrorism is concerned [because Switzerland] cannot become the location where terrorism can be built up financially and logistically".

But at the Swiss Bankers Association in Basel, there was some frustration that Switzerland's name had once again been mentioned in connection with dirty money.

"Very often when Switzerland is mentioned, it's usually in a context that's based on a complete misunderstanding of financial privacy here," spokesman, James Nason, told swissinfo.

"We cannot emphasise enough that the high level of confidentiality that Swiss banks offer their customers does not and will never protect terrorists and their financial transactions.

"When a crime is being investigated, the judicial authorities have complete and unlimited access to information in the banks so it's an absolute myth to believe that there's this monolithic banking secrecy that protects criminals," he added.

Nason cautioned, though, that it is not always possible to detect whether money coming into the country is dirty.

"Obviously no terrorist with an ounce of grey matter between his ears would open an account in his own name," Nason said. "Terrorist money doesn't come nicely colour coded. It's not bright yellow. It doesn't stand out from the crowd so it's very difficult."

New strategy

In a related development, the Bush administration is to unveil a new strategy to fight money laundering, which targets big illicit operations that could be used by terrorist groups.

The strategy had already been drafted by the US Treasury Department and other agencies when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked last week.

A Swiss expert of criminal law, Professor Mark Pieth, has said the US's prime suspect behind the attacks, Osama bin Laden, would obviously not use his own name but rather a network of middlemen and front companies to invest his money.

Stock exchanges around the world are currently investigating possible profiteering before the attacks.

However, Pieth said Switzerland was no more attractive than other financial centres in this respect. Unlike other countries, Switzerland has had a law since 1984 which permits the confiscation of money from criminal organisations, he added.

swissinfo with agencies


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