Deposits by Despots No More: Swiss to Tighten Bank Laws

Bankers and politicians here are learning that money does indeed have an odor, and one that wafts far beyond any vault.

For decades, dictators and despots have deposited their fortunes in the fortress-like Swiss banks, counting on secrecy laws to protect them. But events in recent weeks have renewed the call to stop the flow of such cash in order to end Switzerland's image as the scoundrel's safe.

A proposed law under consideration in Parliament here would require banks and other financial institutions to report any depositor or deposit suspected of criminal ties. This changes current practices, which only give banks the right to report suspected criminal activity. If passed, the law would undo a decades-old practice of turning the other way when politicians with questionable backgrounds try to open an account.

The proposed legislation, which will likely pass, would bring Switzerland in line with other European countries and the United States.

This effort to intensify scrutiny coincides with Swiss Attorney General Carla del Ponte's investigation into whether Raul Salinas, the brother of former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, had funds transferred into Swiss banks. Although Mr. Salinas' attempt to transfer 100 million Swiss francs ($68 million) into a Swiss bank was thwarted in 1995, Mrs. del Ponte says it is too early to comment on the investigation.

In addition, a heated debate took place in Bern, the capital, about whether to freeze the funds of another politician who has recently fallen from grace - President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. In the end, the Federal Council refused to freeze his accounts.

During the 1960s and 1970s, banks weren't required to play the role of the nosy neighbor. Questions about who their wealthy depositors were or where the money came from weren't asked. "The banks don't want to be [like the] police. They want clients," says del Ponte. "That has contributed to the problem. But I think now they realize it's better to ask more questions."

Better to ask more questions, since it can improve the banks' image and avoid prickly political situations, agrees Daniel Zuberbuehler, director of the Swiss Federal Banking Commission, the organization that oversees banking regulations here

"There was a perception for a long time that these people's money would be safe here," he says. "Clearly these people didn't realize that steps might someday be taken against them or that someday they might not be in power facing a new government that would request us to block their funds."

Such was the case with the late Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. More than 700 million Swiss francs of his fortune remain blocked here. In the case of the new government of Mali, the Swiss government has agreed to send back 3.2 million Swiss francs that once belonged to ousted President Moussa Traor, who is now under guard in a Mali prison.

"We've learned a lot in the past few years," says Sylvia Matile, a spokeswoman for the Swiss Bankers Association in Basel. "Now if a politician wants to open an account here, it is taken up at the highest levels."

Banking secrecy and numbered accounts actually didn't become a legal rule in Switzerland until 1934.

According to the rules, after clients open an account, they can conduct their business with the number assigned to their account. Hence the famous numbered Swiss bank account.

Under the proposed law, if a banker suspects the depositor's funds came from illegal activities, then this banker will be required to file a report.

Defenders of banking secrecy say that such secrecy serves to protect the honest. "Banking secrecy is not and never has been absolute," Ms. Matile says. "It was always to protect the honest customer, not the criminals."

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