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Volcker defends fast-track handout of Holocaust money

Volcker is to take the final decisions regarding the payouts for dormant account holders

(Keystone)

The Swiss-based tribunal responsible for settling Holocaust era claims has defended plans to simplify the process.

Paul Volcker, a so-called "Special Master" of the Zurich-based Claims Resolution Tribunal (CRT), said he hoped $800 million - designated for holders of dormant accounts in Swiss banks - would be distributed to some 36,000 applicants by year's end.

Volcker's comments came several days after the CRT announced it was giving in-house lawyers the task of drafting decisions on payouts - rather than using a panel of eminent part-time and independent claims judges.

The tribunal has also changed its rules about who can apply for the money, opening the process to people such as the stepsons and stepdaughters of dormant account holders.

Volcker, a former United States Federal Reserve Board president, will have responsibility for taking final decisions on payouts, alongside the tribunal's second Special Master, Michael Bradfield.

The CRT has come under media scrutiny in recent days, amid revelations that ten of the tribunal's 17 independent arbitrators have resigned, including its general secretary, Veijo Heiskanen.

According to several reports, some of the arbitrators - who include high-profile judicial figures from around the world - have departed in anger at plans to streamline the tribunal's payouts. Others have reportedly said their caseload has been too small or non-existent.

The tribunal was established last year under the direction of US District Court judge Edward Korman as part of a $1.25 billion settlement between Swiss banks and Jewish plaintiffs' groups in 1998.

Trickle of compensation

However, questions have been raised by the fact that only $16.9 million has been paid to 135 claimants. When it started in August last year, the tribunal hoped to distribute all the money within two years.

Switzerland's banks have faced years of criticism over their wartime record, and their handling of Nazi Holocaust victim's accounts. But despite the settlement, the issue continues to haunt them.

On Sunday, the weekly Zurich-based "NZZ am Sonntag" newspaper said that a conference call last week between Korman and the CRT staff - billed as a pep talk - had seen the American judge launch a fresh attack against Swiss banks.

Korman reportedly told tribunal staff that the banks had "stolen" by reneging on a promise to publish "the entire list of dormant accounts on the internet and to give complete access to their documents".

According to the newspaper, Korman also said that young Americans had cleared up every mess in Europe during the 20th century; that America had made the continent everything it is today, and; that Hitler had Switzerland "in the bag" during the war.

Silence on Korman

Speaking in Zurich on Monday after visiting the CRT, Volcker refused to comment on Korman's criticism.

However he said the banks had worked well throughout the whole process - although efficiency was a problem.

He said the tribunal's previous structure had made the resolution of claims on dormant accounts too slow.

The tribunal's decision to speed-up its resolution process is being linked to the recent release of a critical historical study into Switzerland's World War Two activities.

Headed by Swiss historian Jean-Francois Bergier, the study found - among many things - that "transfers of Nazi victim accounts to Nazi authorities may have been significantly larger than earlier identified".

It also suggested that Swiss banks after the war 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".

By Jacob Greber


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