Swissleaks leaker skips Swiss trial
The Swiss trial against a former HSBC employee who leaked documents alleging the bank helped clients evade millions of dollars in taxes opened Monday, but in his absence it was immediately adjourned.
Herve Falciani, the 43-year-old French-Italian national who exposed the so-called Swissleaks scandal, had said he would not come to Switzerland for the trial, and on the first day the prosecutor opened the case by requesting an adjournment.
Prosecutor Carlo Bulletti stressed to the federal court in the southern Swiss town of Bellinzona the need for the man of the hour to be present to explain and defend himself, the ATS news agency reported.
The court followed the recommendation, postponing the proceedings until November 2.
Falciani, had told media several weeks ago he would not travel to attend the hearings in Switzerland, where he could risk arrest, questioning whether the Swiss trial would be fair.
HSBC’s Swiss division meanwhile told AFP it had taken “note that Herve Falciani did not appear at today’s hearing at the Swiss Federal Criminal Court in spite of the court’s offer for him to request a safe passage.”
The Bellizona court also highlighted its previous offer of a safe passage, adding it hoped he would change his mind and attend the proceedings next month.
As a French national living in France, he cannot be extradited to Switzerland.
Falciani leaked a cache of documents indicating that HSBC’s Swiss private banking arm helped over 120,000 clients to hide 180.6 billion euros from tax authorities.
While he is widely viewed as a whistleblower and hailed as a hero in countries where his leaked information is helping net tax cheats, Swiss authorities are prosecuting him for data theft, industrial espionage, and violating the country’s long-cherished banking secrecy laws.
Ironically, Geneva prosecutors in June closed their investigation into HSBC’s alleged wrongdoings after the bank agreed to pay tens of millions of dollars in compensation.
Geneva lead prosecutor Yves Bertossa at the time explained that “it is difficult to prove acts of money laundering. That is why we preferred to go with a negotiated solution.”
Swiss authorities obviously deem it easier to show Falciani breeched Swiss data theft and banking secrecy laws, and have pushed ahead with the case against him.
– Fair trial? –
Falciani questioned the fairness of the Swiss proceedings against him.
“Do I have the right to a just and fair trial? Maybe, but can one really call this a trial?” he told the Swiss business weekly HandelsZeitung last week.
“I have to appear before the court, while the case against HSBC was halted, how is that possible? Am I a greater danger to Switzerland than HSBC?” he said.
Falciani became an IT worker for HSBC in 2000 and moved to the bank’s offices in Geneva in 2006.
The so-called “Snowden of tax evasion” and “the man who terrifies the rich” obtained access to a massive database of encrypted customer information.
In 2007 Falciani took the names of over 120,000 clients and by 2008 headed for Lebanon with his mistress and a plan to sell the data. Swiss authorities described it as “cashing in”.
Yet suspicious bankers in Lebanon were not interested in buying the dubiously sourced client list, and at least one instead tipped off counterparts in Switzerland to Falciani’s activities.
After his plan to sell the data fell apart, Falciani got in contact with European fiscal authorities and began passing them the pilfered information, which prompted numerous tax evasion audits.
Falciani rejects that he was only seeking financial gain, insisting he had wanted to expose how banks support tax evasion and money laundering.
Though he remains wanted on data theft charges, France and Spain have offered him protection by refusing to extradite him to Switzerland.
He did, however, spend a couple months in a Spanish prison in 2012 at Switzerland’s request before winning his release for helping Spain track down its tax cheats.
Falciani had initially said he would attend his Swiss trial to explain himself, but has changed his mind.
Instead he has called a press conference later this month in Divonne, France — a stone’s throw from the Swiss border — to give his side of the story.