Switzerland too slow in processing legal assistance requests from abroad

Swiss banks were found to have violated anti-money laundering guidelines in the Malaysian 1MDB corruption scandal in which some $4 billion (CHF4 billion) were siphoned out of the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund into the pockets of corrupt officials. Keystone / Joshua Paul

The country gets many requests for mutual legal assistance when it comes to international crimes but processing them takes far too long, says audit. 

This content was published on September 30, 2020 - 23:00

A report published the Swiss Federal Audit Office on Wednesday found that it takes an average of 290 days for Swiss authorities to deal with a request for mutual legal assistance from another country. In comparison other countries grant mutual assistance in 154 days on average, said the report. In ten out of fifteen cases, Switzerland processes the requests it receives slower than the countries with which it cooperates. 

One factor is that Switzerland receives many such requests, especially in economic matters given that the Alpine nation is an important global financial hub. In total, Switzerland receives at least 2,300 requests from abroad every year. Examples of such requests include corruption scandals involving FIFA, Petrobras, the Malaysian sovereign fund 1MDB and the Panama Papers. 

Another reason found for the slow pace of handling requests is that a vast majority of such requests (88%) are made directly to the public prosecutors in the country’s 26 cantons. They are not accustomed to this type of request and are quickly overwhelmed by complex cases. This leads to lengthy procedures and errors that sometimes make it impossible to provide mutual assistance. 

Another problem is that Switzerland grants a specific right of appeal in cases of international mutual assistance, a procedure that no state, with the exception of Luxembourg, applies. However, this right is often used by the accused to buy time. It can take three to six months for the Federal Criminal Court to decide on such appeals before it can receive the evidence requested. 

The Federal Audit Office recommended revising the Mutual Assistance Act to simplify procedures and update old ones. The audit also suggested that complex requests for mutual assistance should be handled by sufficiently experienced authorities. It also recommended that the Federal Office of Justice should intervene at an early stage in a supervisory role and work more consistently with the cantonal enforcement authorities. 

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