Greek journalist in limbo over Swiss bank leaks

A Greek court on Monday postponed the retrial of a journalist who was cleared last year over the publication of leaked Swiss bank account data in a case that has deeply embarrassed the government.

Greek journalist in limbo over Swiss bank leaks
Photo: Liana Bitoli

The adjournment came just days after Greek lawmakers voted in favour of widening a parliamentary probe into a former finance minister over the handling of the confidential document known as the "Lagarde list".
Costas Vaxevanis, the publisher of investigative magazine Hot Doc, branded 
his trial a "farce" after the court adjourned the case to October 8th at the request of the defence.
Vaxevanis was controversially charged last year for publishing an alleged 
copy of the "Lagarde list" of suspected tax dodgers, triggering charges of Greek press censorship.

The document contains the names of more than 2,000 wealthy Greek HSBC bank account holders in Switzerland and was used to pursue suspected tax evaders.
It was originally leaked by an HSBC employee in Geneva and passed to Greece in 2010 
by France's then finance minister Christine Lagarde, who now heads the International Monetary Fund.
The list enabled authorities in France, Spain and Britain to seek 
millions of euros in lost tax revenue, but Greek authorities treated it as stolen data and failed to pursue the case.
Vaxevanis' first trial became a major embarrassment for the government 
which was accused of trying to bury the issue and censor the journalist.
The 46-year-old was acquitted in November but a retrial was ordered after 
the prosecutor said there were "legal faults" in the original verdict.
Defence lawyer Harris Economopoulos branded it a "political trial" while 
Vaxevanis said it had become a "farce".
Last Thursday, Greek lawmakers decided that George Papaconstantinou — who 
originally received the list from Lagarde — should be investigated for damaging the image of the public treasury during his stint as finance minister.
He is also accused of tampering with the "Lagarde list" to hinder a probe 
into tax evasion, by deleting the names of three of his relatives from the list.
The ex-minister, who has retired from politics, helped set up the indebted 
country's first austerity programme and European Union-IMF bailout plan in 2010, and protests that he is being used as a scapegoat.

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Switzerland’s banks remain among the world’s most secretive

Despite the progress made over the years, the Swiss financial sector continues to be one of the least transparent in the world. But there is good news too.

Switzerland’s banks remain among the world’s most secretive
Switzerland remains one of the world's least transparent nations. Photo AFP

Switzerland is in the third place in the 2020 Financial Secrecy Index released by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Tax Justice Network (TJN), which rates 133 nations based on their financial transparency.

Two other European countries, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, are also ranked among the top 10 least transparent nations on the TJN’s list.

Despite being in the third place, Switzerland ranks better this year than it did in the previous edition of the Index, which is released every two years — it slipped from the first to third place. The Cayman Islands and the United States took the first and second spots, respectively.

Switzerland reduced its risk of being an offshore haven for tax cheats by 12 percent, “finally improving enough to move off the top of the index”, TJN said. 

READ MORE: Switzerland's strangest taxes – and what happens if you don't pay them

This improvement is mainly due to Switzerland extending its international network for the automatic exchange of customer information to more than 100 countries. 

Also, in a referendum held last year, Swiss voters accepted the Federal Act on Tax Reform and AVS Financing (TRAF). This legislation introduced major changes in the Swiss tax system by ending some preferential tax schemes and replacing them with new regulations which are in line with international standards.

This tax reform prompted the European Union to change Switzerland's status from ‘tax haven' to one which is EU-compliant, removing strict controls on transactions within the EU. 

So why, despite all the reforms, does Switzerland still rank among the world’s least transparent nations?

According to a Swiss NGO Alliance Sud, wealthy people from poor countries can still hide their money here from the tax authorities of their home nations.

Alliance Sud noted that despite the progress made in the past years by Swiss financial institutions, “the fight against tax evasion remains insufficient”.

Switzerland is the world’s biggest centre for managing offshore wealth, with a quarter of global assets invested here.

For years, it has been placed on various lists of tax havens where wealthy foreigners could park their money. Faced with widespread criticism for this practice, Switzerland passed an anti-money laundering law in 1997 and introduced strict regulations against tax evasion.