Switzerland sees swift but mixed reaction to defence ministry scandal

Political reactions to the widening defense ministry scandal were swift but mixed as the country tried to assess on Monday whether the fraud scandal had really become a weapons dealing and conspiracy affair.

This content was published on August 23, 1999 - 17:20

Political reactions to the widening defense ministry scandal were swift but mixed as the country tried to assess on Monday whether the fraud scandal -- which led to the suspension of intelligence chief Peter Regli (above) -- had really become a weapons dealing and conspiracy affair.

The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) of Defense Minister Adolf Ogi supported calls for a thorough investigation into whether Dino Bellasi, a former defense ministry official under arrest for fraud, had really worked on setting up a secret army and had engaged in weapons deals.

But the party rejected calls for a parliamentary probe, saying the current fraud investigation should first be completed – and only then could the question of political responsibility be raised.

The fraud scandal drew wider circles on Sunday when Regli was suspended amid media reports that he had ordered Bellasi to form an underground army.

Defense Minister Adolf Ogi, who addressed a special news conference Sunday, said he considered Regli innocent unless proven otherwise. But the minister admitted that the fraud case had now grown into a full-blown scandal.

Investigators found about 200 weapons and significant amounts of ammunition in a suburb of the capital Berne last week.

The Federal Prosecutor’s Office said Monday that the investigation against Bellasi had been expanded to include several senior officials in the intelligence unit of the defense ministry.

The Christian Democrat Party, which is also represented in the cabinet, has pointed the finger at Ogi and his ministry.

Party President Adalbert Durrer said Monday that Ogi was clearly not able or willing to get to the bottom of the affair swiftly and that it was now up to the cabinet as a whole to address the widening scandal.

The Social Democrat Party leader Ursula Koch demanded Sunday that a parliamentary committee be set up to probe why in the small secret service of 130 staff, superiors did not know what junior officers were doing.

At the centre of the scandal is Bellasi, 39, a former defense ministry official who was arrested nearly two weeks ago on suspicion of fraud and embezzlement of SFr8.65 million ($5.8 million) in advance payments by the Swiss National Bank.

The advance is normally used to pay for food, accommodation and the salaries of Swiss soldiers doing their military refresher courses. Bellasi, however, siphoned-off the money for several years and his alleged crime was not detected until very recently.

The fraud scandal took on another dimension on Sunday, when the Sunday newspaper “Sonntagsblick” reported that Bellasi claimed to have been ordered by his superiors to set up a secret army, including weapons.

Ogi told the news conference Sunday that intelligence chief Regli had asked to be suspended and that he had agreed.

Regli has rejected the allegations by Bellasi that he had ordered the formation of a secret army. He accused Bellasi of fabricating a “grotesque web of lies.”

However, Bellasi's lawyer said Monday that Regli had ordered Bellasi to set up the covert force and finance it by secretely channeling the money away from the official defense ministry accounts.

From staff and wire reports.

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