Official: ‘Thousands’ of bigwigs hold Swiss accounts

Swiss bank account holder: Former Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos (Left), with Secretary of State George Schulz. Washington, 1982. [Dino Bartomucci/Wikimedia]

Thousands of so-called “politically exposed persons”, or PEPs – a category that includes heads of state and other top officials – hold Swiss bank accounts, a Swiss foreign ministry official said yesterday (24 August).

Swiss authorities estimate that “there are thousands of PEPs (with accounts) in Switzerland, not hundreds,” Valentin Zellweger, who heads the ministry’s Directorate of International Law, told reporters.

Switzerland has repeatedly been embarrassed by revelations, splashed across front pages worldwide, of global political heavyweights hiding funds – sometimes embezzled from public coffers – in the Alpine nation’s famous banks.

But the country has not taken such scandals sitting down: it has been freezing suspicious assets for a quarter century.

By the end of this year, Bern aims to finalise a law aimed at simplifying the process of freezing and unblocking such funds.

In total, Switzerland has since 2003 returned a total of around $1.8 billion embezzled by Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, the late Nigerian military dictator Sani Abacha, former Peruvian spy chief Vladimir Montesinos, Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti and others.

That is more than any other country has returned and represents a quarter of the $4-5 billion in assets restituted globally, Swiss authorities said last year.

The country has meanwhile recently seized around $400 million in connection with a massive corruption probe targeting Brazil’s state oil company Petrobras.

Zellweger insisted Switzerland is trying to be “transparent” in its handling of the Petrobras scandal, which involves top executives accused of colluding with construction companies to inflate contracts and bribe politicians.

The Swiss opened their own inquiry into Petrobras in April last year, with authorities vowing to crack down on the large number of suspicious transactions believed to be linked to the case that had moved through the country’s banks.

Switzerland’s attorney general has said the suspected corrupt payments had passed through more than 30 Swiss banks.

This marks a hard blow to the Swiss banking sector, which for years has been striving to clean up its image and crack down hard on money laundering.

“We have to do better,” Zellweger acknowledged, stressing though that Switzerland was the only international banking hub that had provided information about Petrobras-linked transactions.

He said banks in other countries had handled much bigger sums linked to the corruption case, but that those countries were keeping mum.

Under pressure from EU member states, and in particular the United States - which threatened to withhold large portions of certain transfers if Swiss banks did not provide information on accounts held by US citizens - Switzerland has been signing up to automatic bank data exchange agreements that are bringing to an end its long tradition of banking secrecy.

The European Union and Switzerland signed a major accord on 27 May to end banking secrecy for EU residents and prevent them from stashing undeclared income in Swiss banks.

>>Read: EU-Swiss accord to end banking secrecy, curb tax evasion

Under the agreement, the EU and Switzerland will automatically exchange information on the bank accounts held by their respective residents, including businesses, beginning in 2018.

The information - including each account holder's name, address, tax identification number, date of birth and bank balance - is to be provided yearly.

On 17 June, the European Commission presented a proposal called the Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base to create a single EU-wide set of rules for calculating taxable profits.

>>Read: Juncker’s tax 'fairness' plan consolidates his majority in Parliament

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