Swiss strike a second blow against bank secrecy

AFP-JIJI

Switzerland will cooperate more closely on fighting money-laundering, the body responsible said Wednesday, marking a further loosening of bank secrecy a day after the country signed an accord to fight tax evasion.

In legislation that will come into force Nov. 1, the Bern-based Money Laundering Reporting Office (MROS) said that Swiss authorities will be able to release the numbers of bank accounts opened in the country to foreign investigators.

A day earlier, Switzerland, widely considered a tax haven and long criticized for its secretive banking culture, signed an international agreement to exchange information among more than 60 countries aimed at exposing tax dodgers.

That agreement still has to be ratified by the legislature.

Swiss authorities have come under pressure from the international community to clamp down on the concealment of illicit funds and tax evasion in the wake of both the global financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent eurozone debt crisis.

Ordinary people facing increasing financial pressures, often facing higher taxes to cover the costs of the crises, were outraged by revelations of tax evasion and avoidance by corporations and wealthy individuals.

The revised legislation, which incorporates recommendations form the Financial Action Task Force on money-laundering (GAFI), will make it easier to communicate financial data abroad — except in cases where national security is threatened.

MROS will be able to release banking information only if someone is formally investigated for money-laundering.

Meanwhile, Tuesday’s tax evasion agreement allows for simultaneous controls to track fraud in order to harmonize cross-border investigations. These have in the past been hampered by the complex routes used to hide funds, coupled with obstructionism on the part of some national authorities.

The legislature this winter will examine further legislation that seeks to modify the legal definition of tax fraud and tax evasion.

According to Swiss law, tax cheats could simply have “forgotten” to declare their assets, meaning tax evasion is not classed as an offense punishable by law, except if it is carried out using forgery, which does carry a maximum three-year prison sentence.

Tax fraud meanwhile is seen as a deliberate act.

Lawmakers will review the definition of both acts, whose ambiguity tax cheats have played on to avoid declaring funds.