The Swiss Parliament last Thursday opened what is expected to be a heated debate over a new law to make money laundering a felony - but absent from the debate was one of the law's key proponents. Earlier in the week, the minister for justice and the police, Elisabeth Kopp, resigned, handing over the money-laundering portfolio to her deputy.
Mrs. Kopp's sudden departure shocked the country and brought to an end her four years of successful efforts to push through legal reforms in several key areas: land use, womens' rights, the refugee policy, and money laundering.
Less than one week earlier the popular politician had been elected vice-president of the Federal Council, a seven-member national governing body. She was slated to become president of Switzerland in 1990. Kopp would have been the first woman to hold the job.
Ironically, it was money-laundering that brought about her downfall. Kopp's husband, Hans Kopp, is a Zurich lawyer who sits on the boards of several companies. Since November he has been accused in the press of involvement in the ``Lebanon connection,'' a gold and drugs operation in which $1.5 billion was supposedly laundered in Switzerland.
The case, in which nine people have been arrested, is Switzerland's largest ever for money laundering. It grew out of the country's largest haul of illicit drugs, in 1986. It is also the impetus behind Mrs. Kopp's decision to push for a law governing money laundering by the end of 1989, three years ahead of schedule.
Mr. Kopp has not been charged, but the current investigation - undertaken by his wife's department - is at least the third in ten years into his activities. In other cases he is suspected of tax evasion and stock fraud.
The crisis came to a head Dec. 8 when ``Le Matin,'' a Lausanne newspaper, disclosed that Mrs. Kopp had, Oct. 27, tipped off her husband that one of the companies he was involved in was about to be implicated in the drugs-gold investigation.
The feeling appears to be widespread that the government will continue to push for her suggested reforms. Her successor will not be nominated by her party until late February. Switzerland has in the past been under pressure from other governments, notably the United States, to tighten its policing of money laundering. Sentiment is growing that in order to maintain credibility, the problem must be more closely monitored. Kopp's resignation is seen as a sad political end for Switzerland's first woman cabinet minister.