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Switzerland projects anti-money laundering image

Switzerland is facing international pressure to open its system to more scrutiny

(swissinfo.ch)

Switzerland has defended its efforts to tackle money laundering, with a new drive to show that the country's financial system no longer shelters dirty money.

Briefing foreign media in Bern on Friday the government attempted to explain Switzerland's complex banking regulation system.

The government's desire to portray the country as a model of financial probity - an image that runs headlong into well-worn stereotypes of Switzerland as a haven for ill-gotten gains - comes amid touchy negotiations with the European Union on banking secrecy.

For several years now, Switzerland has faced international pressure to close its doors to criminal funds, and open its system to more scrutiny.

In response, the country has developed a web of regulatory bodies that rely on banks and financial institutions to report suspicious financial activities.

"Switzerland is committed to being a leader in the fight against money laundering," says the Swiss president, Kaspar Villiger.

Swiss stereotype "unfair"

Villiger says Switzerland is now a leading player in the global fight against both illegal and terrorist money.

"What I read in thrillers about the Swiss financial system, are not reflected in reality," says Villiger.

However, he denies that Swiss efforts to promote the country's money-laundering laws are linked to next month's meeting of European Finance ministers.

The EU is keen to force Switzerland to share information on EU citizen's accounts held in Swiss banks - something the government insists is out of the question.

"I think this connection is an artificial one," says Villiger.

According to Switzerland's money laundering authorities, 380 cases were sent to prosecuting authorities in 2001, involving assets worth SFr2.7 billion ($1.8 billion) - most of it related to terrorism.

No longer a problem

Dina Balleyguier, from the Swiss money laundering control office, says dirty money remains a problem around the world, "but not in Switzerland".

"Customers that have something to hide will be reluctant to come to Switzerland because they will have to disclose their whole life," she told swissinfo.

James Nason, a spokesman for the Swiss Bankers Association, says banks are spending significant amounts to comply with Swiss "know your customer" laws.

"No bank wants to be in the news under a negative headline," says Nason.

However, he expressed frustration that Swiss banks had been unfairly targeted, citing the Abacha case, involving funds deposited in European banks by the Nigerian dictator.

"Here, 19 Swiss banks were named and shamed, but 23 banks in the UK accepted Abacha money but we didn't hear about that.

Five authorities

Swiss law to combat money laundering has been tightened in several stages over the past 25 years and was extended to the non-banking sector four years ago.

There are currently five authorities dealing with the crime: the Money Laundering Control Authority, the Federal Banking Commission, the federal gambling commission, the Federal Office of Private Insurance and the Money Laundering Reporting Office.

swissinfo, Jacob Greber

Key facts

380 money laundering cases were submitted to prosecuting authorities in 2001.
SFr2.7 billion were linked to these cases.
There are currently five authorities dealing with the crime.

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