Swiss police search HSBC offices; bank faces laundering probe

Geneva: Swiss police today searched HSBC offices here as part of its probe into "suspected money laundering" by the global banking giant, which has been in news for a leaked list of its account holders that included 1,195 Indian names.

The banking major has come under the scanner after a global expose earlier this month by a grouping of investigative journalists disclosed details of over one lakh account holders in HSBC Geneva branch. This included 1,195 Indian names, including those of big corporates and political leaders.

The Swiss prosecutors are probing HSBC Private Bank as well as unknown persons for "suspected aggravated money laundering" activities. "Following the recent revelations related to the HSBC Private Bank (Switzerland), the public prosecutor announces the opening of a criminal procedure against the bank... for aggravated money laundering," the Swiss Prosecutors Office said in a statement.

The investigation comes against the backdrop of allegations that the bank might have helped wealthy customers to evade tax. According to prosecutors, the probe could be broadened to others depending on the progress in the case.

The expose claimed that HSBC's Swiss private banking arm aided customers, spread across more than 200 countries, to evade taxes on amounts worth over USD 119 billion.

Names of businessmen, celebrities and political figures, among others, are part of the leaked list. HSBC, which admitted to some past lapses on its part, recently came out with full-page advertisements in papers with an apology over the claims.

The list has 1,668 Indians, while the number of actionable cases stands at 1,195 after taking into account duplication and some other factors. Collectively, these accounts had a balance of USD 4.1 billion (Rs 25,420 crore) till 2007. However, all of those accounts may not necessarily have had illicit funds.

Asked about steps being taken by Swiss authorities to ensure that illicit funds are not stashed in their banks, the Switzerland government had said, "Since 2009, Switzerland has changed its financial market policy and is strongly committed to the international standards and to the fight against tax evasion."

In the list, there are 2,699 accounts linked to 1,688 Indians. Out of these, 1,403 accounts were opened between 1969 and 2006, while the maximum amount of money associated with a client connected to India was USD 876.3 million.

Among Indian names, 51 per cent have a Indian passport or nationality, while the remaining accounts were either linked to offshore companies, or were 'numbered' accounts. Earlier, India had received from France a list of over 628 Indians with account in HSBC's Geneva branch. That list was also part of the larger 'HSBC list', which a former bank employee had "secreted away" to the French government.

Switzerland, long known as a place with unbreakable banking secrecy, has come under intense global pressure, including from India, to crack down on illicit fund flows. Armed with information received about its citizens holding secret accounts in Swiss banks, India has been seeking details from Switzerland, but most of these requests were being stonewalled by the European nation on the ground of those being based on stolen data.

Consequently, India has now changed its strategy and has decided to seek details on the basis of additional evidence collected by it on suspected cases of black money stashed in Swiss banks.

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