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Swiss probe Saddam money network

Lugano lawyer Elio Borradori has denied managing Saddam's millions

(Keystone Archive)

The government is investigating claims by a British newspaper that Saddam Hussein funnelled millions of dollars through a Lugano-based holding company.

The Sunday Times claims the money was moved from Baghdad to Switzerland before being dispersed among secretive offshore companies.

The newspaper said the funds, which were the proceeds of arms and development deals, were channelled into companies in Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Panama and the Bahamas controlled by the Saddam's appointees

The alleged network, consisting of over 120 businesses worldwide, was built up in the late 1970s, when Saddam first became president and was used to fund Iraqi leader's numerous palaces and lavish lifestyle.

According to the paper, United States officials estimate that the former Iraqi leader salted away up to $11 billion (SFr15 billion) in accounts around the world.

Investigation

The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco) said on Monday that it was taking the allegations seriously.

"We have to look into it and we'll probably get in touch with interested governments," Ottmar Wyss, responsible for export controls and sanctions at Seco, told swissinfo.

"But it's still too early to decide whether to launch a formal investigation."

Wyss said he had no knowledge of Mediterranean Enterprises Development Projects (MEDP), a Ticino-based holding company allegedly at the heart of the financial network, with branches in Paris, New York, London and other centres.

"I've never heard of this company," said Wyss.

The claims come a week after the government formally blocked all assets related to Saddam's regime held in Swiss banks.

The move came in response to a request from Washington to prevent the withdrawal of any Iraqi government or corporate funds.

Sanctions

Wyss warned that it would be one thing to track down the Swiss-based companies allegedly part of the Iraqi financial network, and another to prove that laws had been broken.

"There were no financial sanctions in place against Iraq during the 1970s and 1980s," he explained.

"And [after 1991] the only assets that had to be frozen were those belonging to the Iraqi government and Iraqi enterprises, and not to people like Saddam Hussein."

However, freelance journalist Paolo Fusi, one of authors of the Sunday Times article, said the paper uncovered more than 1,000 documents allegedly indicating that financial transactions were made both during the 1980s and after UN sanctions were imposed after the first Gulf war.

He told swissinfo that the evidence showed that MEPD and other Swiss-based companies managed funds linked to Iraqi weapons deals, which would be illegal under Swiss law.

"We've found [arms] contracts that were made in 1988 and 1989 but where the delivery took place in late 1990s," said Fusi. "And there are banking documents as recent as 2001."

Serious charges

Wyss said any such dealings would be a "serious matter" for the Swiss authorities.

Meanwhile, the Lugano-based lawyer accused of managing Saddam's millions, has strongly denied the charge.

"I have never dealt with Saddam Hussein's fortune and I never met him," said Elio Borradori.

"I did have contacts with some of his personal staff and especially with his nephew, Saad al-Mahdi, whose financial interests I managed in Lugano," he added.

The newspaper also reported that al-Mahdi controlled on Saddam's behalf an account, dubbed "Satan", at the Lugano-based Banca del Gottardo in the Bahamas.

The bank said on Monday that it had found no record of the account at its subsidiary in the Bahamas.

swissinfo, Vanessa Mock

In brief

The Swiss government is investigating claims that the deposed Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, funnelled money through a holding company in Lugano.

The allegations were reported by the British Sunday Times newspaper.

A lawyer in Ticino, Elio Borradori, is accused of managing Saddam's millions.

The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs said it was treating the allegations seriously, but hadn't decided whether to launch a formal investigation.

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