Julius Baer defends shutdown of whistle-blower site in dispute over leaked documents
28 February 2008
GENEVA – The Swiss bank responsible for shutting down a whistle-blower Web site defended its action Thursday by saying it was only seeking to have stolen and forged documents removed.
Bank Julius Baer said it closed wikileaks.org because those operating the site refused to delete documents relating to some of its wealthy clients.
“It wasn’t our intention to shut down the Web site. Our intention was to remove the documents,” spokesman Martin Somogyi told The Associated Press.
The closure last week of Wikileaks prompted a worldwide backlash, with free speech advocates decrying the shutdown ordered by a US federal court in San Francisco as unconstitutional. Numerous sites have also been created outside the United States to “mirror” the Wikileaks documents and can be easily found on the Internet.
Julius Baer officials who asked not to be named said the furor over the shutdown was unfortunate and unexpected but said the private bank had acted on a matter of principle.
The Web site claimed the documents showed tax evasion and money-laundering schemes at the bank’s Cayman Islands branch – a charge Julius Baer denies.
The bank says the documents were sent to Wikileaks by a disgruntled former employee. Julius Baer is currently pressing charges against the employee in Switzerland.
Somogyi said the failure of Wikileaks to respond to Julius Baer’s complaints caused the site to be shut down. If Wikileaks had defended itself in the US court, then the judge might have ordered only the removal of the offending documents, he said.
Somogyi said the bank believed some of the posted material was forged, citing a letter purportedly sent by Julius Baer to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“It’s pretty obvious that this was a clumsy attempt at cyber slander,” he said.
The bank, which has operations in 18 countries, including the United States, says it supports free speech. But, Somogyi added, “Wikileaks should publish whatever it judges to be accurate, but not stolen or forged documents that concern us.”
Wikileaks spokesman Jay Lim said it always requests that affected parties come forward to offer insight on documents it publishes.
Julius Baer “is trying to muddy the waters by alluding to inaccuracies without actually naming them, as we have repeatedly requested,” Lim said in an e-mailed statement to the AP.
He added that the group operating the site has “responded with grace” to all inquiries by Julius Baer and challenged the bank’s assertion that the lawsuit was not aimed at closing down the site.
“At any time it may ask the court that its earlier request for an order to shut down the site be rescinded. It has not done so,” Lim said.
The site claims to have been launched by Chinese dissidents and other activists who encourage the posting of leaked documents that show unethical behavior of governments and corporations. It says it has posted 1.2 million documents, including a 2003 operation manual for the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
On Friday the court will hear arguments from civil liberties groups and several media organizations, including the AP, challenging the shutdown.
Julius Baer announced earlier this month that it is looking into making an initial public offering, or IPO, for its US subsidiary, Julius Baer Americas Inc.
Shares in Julius Baer closed down 3.5% at CHF76.65 Swiss francs on the Zurich exchange Thursday.
[Copyright ap 2008]