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Credit Suisse had autocrats, criminals as clients — report

February 20, 2022

A global media investigation dubbed Suisse Secrets has revealed that Switzerland's second-largest bank failed to crack down on illicit funds passing through accounts held by dictators, criminals and corrupt politicians.

Credit Suisse's headquarters in Zurich
Credit Suisse clients included a human trafficker and billionaire who ordered his girlfriend’s murder, according to a global media investigationImage: Michael Buholzer/KEYSTONE/picture alliance

Banking giant Credit Suisse has for years opened accounts for autocrats, drug dealers, suspected war criminals and human traffickers, a consortium of global media outlets reported Sunday.

The Suisse Secrets investigation, from massive data leaked by a whistleblower to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), reveals the owners of 100 billion Swiss francs ($109 billion, €96 billion) held in the secretive Swiss-based institution.

SZ, German public broadcasters NDR and WDR, Britain's Guardian and the New York Times were among more than 40 media organizations involved in the investigation under the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).

What did the Suisse Secrets probe uncover?

The media outlets analyzed the leaked data from 30,000 Credit Suisse clients from all over the world.

The accounts were opened anytime from the 1940s to well into the past decade. More than two-thirds were opened after 2000, and many still exist today.

Those exposed include a human trafficker convicted in the Philippines, a Hong Kong stock exchange boss jailed for bribery and an Egyptian billionaire who ordered the murder of his Lebanese pop star girlfriend.

Other clients include numerous heads of state and government, ministers, intelligence agents as well as oligarchs and entrepreneurs with dubious reputations, the media outlets said.

SZ  reported that a former Siemens manager who was convicted of bribery in 2008 was named as having six accounts.

In 2006, one of the former Siemens manager's accounts had assets worth more than 54 million Swiss francs (currently worth around €51.66 million) — a sum the newspaper said cannot be due to his Siemens salary.

The leak also reveals secret accounts held by Jordan's King Abdullah II, Iraq's former Deputy Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, Algerian autocrat Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the Armenian ex-President Armen Sarkissian.

Armenia's former President Armen Sarkissian
Armenia's former President Armen Sarkissian was among several politicians who were named in the Suisse Secrets leakImage: Ennio Leanza/Keystone/picture alliance

Sarkissian resigned as president in January, shortly after SZ contacted him to inquire about his accounts at Credit Suisse. 

The former president said he had closed all accounts before he was required to declare his assets.

What was the reaction to the report?

On Monday, the European People's Party (EPP), the conservative grouping which holds the biggest number of seats in the European Parliament, called on the EU Commission to "re-evaluate Switzerland as high-risk money-laundering country".

"The 'Swiss Secrets' findings point to massive shortcomings of Swiss Banks when it comes to the prevention of money laundering," the EPP's coordinator on economic affairs Markus Ferber said.

Also on Monday, Jordan's royal palace commented on the report, saying that it contained "inaccurate, old and misleading" information. 

"These recent reports are being used to smear His Majesty and Jordan and distort the truth," the palace said in a statement, adding that the figures were overblown because the amounts in the accounts had been counted multiple times.

Bank failed to fully probe suspect clients

The leak points to a widespread failure of due diligence by Credit Suisse in evaluating and rejecting dubious clients and those handling illegal funds.

SZ reported that fraudsters could have opened accounts or kept accounts even "if the bank could have known long ago that they were dealing with criminals."

Reporters spoke to several former employees of the bank, who described a "highly toxic corporate culture that incentivized taking on risk to maximize profits — and bonuses," OCCRP wrote on its website.

Former employees said this led to a culture of two sets of rules for two sets of clients: the rich and the ultra-rich.

The whistleblower, whose name remains unknown to the media partners, described Swiss banking secrecy as "immoral."

"The pretense of protecting financial privacy is just a fig leaf to cover up the shameful role of Swiss banks as collaborators with tax evaders," the whistleblower said.

Credit Suisse's headquarters in Zurich
Credit Suisse's headquarters in ZurichImage: Gaetan Bally/KEYSTONE/picture alliance

Credit Suisse rejects allegations

Credit Suisse on Sunday vehemently denied the accusations, saying the investigation is "based on incomplete, inaccurate or selective information taken out of context, leading to tendentious interpretations of the bank's business conduct."

The bank said that 90% of the accounts cited had already been closed. 

As for accounts that remain active, the bank said it is "comfortable that appropriate due diligence, reviews and other control-related steps were taken in line with our current framework."

The bank also said the law prevents it from commenting on "potential client relationships."

Switzerland has long been one of the world's most opaque financial centers. But the country has sought in recent years to shed its image as a haven for tax evasion, money laundering and the embezzlement of government funds.

Swiss banks now exchange information about account holders with a number of countries, but not some of the poorest and most corrupt nations.

The investigation found that a large number of the customers in the Suisse Secrets data come from Venezuela, Egypt, Ukraine and Tajikistan.

Credit Suisse has been involved in dozens of scandals over the past two decades and paid more than $10 billion in fines.

This month, the bank became the first major Swiss lender to face criminal charges over whether it helped a Bulgarian drug cartel to launder money. Credit Suisse denies the allegation.

Last month, the bank lost its chairman Antonio Horta-Osorio after he twice broke COVID-19 rules.

mm,es/wd (AP, dpa)