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US judge criticises Swiss banks

Judge Edward Korman has launched a new broadside against Switzerland's banks

(Keystone Archive)

The American judge overseeing the settlement of dormant Holocaust-era accounts has reportedly accused major Swiss banks of stealing and then hiding the truth.

Judge Edward Korman, who approved the $1.25 billion (SFr1.95 billion) settlement between the banks and Jewish plaintiffs' groups, is said to have told employees of the Zurich-based Claims Resolution Tribunal (CRT) that bankers had attempted to withhold information about Holocaust assets.

The CRT was set up to process individual claims to Swiss bank accounts dating back to the Second World War.

According to the "NZZ am Sonntag" newspaper, Korman said during a conference call on Thursday that the banks had failed to keep their end of the bargain.

"The banks have stolen. They have refused to publish the entire list of dormant accounts on the Internet and to give complete access to their documents," said the judge.

"The banks claimed they were being blackmailed," he added. "The truth is that they have destroyed any proof that may have backed up the conclusions of the Bergier report."

Nazi war effort

The Bergier commission, a panel of eight eminent Swiss and foreign historians, published its conclusions to five years of research into Switzerland's wartime past in March.

The report concluded that the government and parts of private industry had gone too far in cooperating with the Nazi regime. The Swiss government had also helped to finance the Nazi war effort by extending export credits to firms supplying crucial materials to Germany and Italy.

The commission also found that the government and business had failed to properly make restitution to the victims of the Nazis after the war.

Korman's latest claims are backed up by a statement on the CRT website. According to the tribunal, the Bergier report suggests that transfers of Nazi victim accounts to Nazi authorities may have been significantly larger than earlier identified.

The CRT statement also says that "the banks adopted a common approach that was aimed at actively misinforming or misleading Nazi victims or their heirs who made inquiries to Swiss banks about their accounts."

According to the NZZ am Sonntag, Korman told CRT employees that they must take into account the report's conclusions. The tribunal has already announced that there will be changes in the way it will deal with claims.

Bankers' denial

The Swiss Bankers' Association has denied the US judge's claims. "It is simply not true that the banks destroyed or hid documents," said Thomas Sutter, a spokesman for the association.

"On the contrary, Switzerland's banks allowed themselves to be investigated as never before by the Volcker Commission," he added.

Three years ago, this commission identified 36,000 accounts in Swiss banks that possibly belonged to Holocaust victims.

The judge not only attacked Switzerland's banks in his speech to the tribunal's employees, but also pointed the finger at the country's wartime authorities and Europe in general.

"Young Americans cleared up every mess in Europe during the 20th century," said Korman, claiming that America had helped to make the continent everything it was today. He also said that Hitler had Switzerland "in the bag" during the war.

The judge's statements come as the CRT is undergoing changes. Lawyers are being given responsibility for drafting decisions for approval, while part-time claims judges are being shown the door.

According to media reports, employees, including the tribunal's general secretary, Veijo Heiskanen, have also left because of disagreements over how claims are handled.

Just over a week ago, Korman ordered the tribunal to simplify the claims' procedure, allowing payouts to sons- and daughters-in-law, as well as to distant relatives. Claims will also be paid out fully, whereas in the past part of the money was retained as a security measure.

swissinfo with agencies

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