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Swiss battle to return Africa’s stolen loot 0

It irritates Valentin Zellweger that ‘no longer than six minutes into any James Bond movie, a sleazy Swiss banker still appears.’

He’s probably referring especially to Mr Lachaise, the nasty Swiss banker and financier of terrorists and crooks in The World is Not Enough. At one point Lachaise says to Bond, ‘I’m just trying to return the money to its rightful owner’. To which Bond replies: ‘And we know how hard that is for a Swiss banker’.

Such stock characters (like Mendel from Casino Royale), only serve to reinforce the stereotype of Switzerland as a safe haven for stolen money and other ill-gotten gains, Zellweger complains.

That stereotype is now something of an anachronism, insists Zellweger, Director General of Public International Law and Legal Advisor of the Swiss Foreign Ministry. He says his country is now indeed at the forefront of international efforts to recover and return such loot, and to cast light into its bank vaults.

He was speaking at the South African Institute of International Affairs, (SAIIA) this week in a discussion titled ‘The Panama lessons: how to effectively fight corruption and return funds.’ The other panellist was David Lewis, head of the South African NGO, Corruption Watch.

The Panama Papers are the trove of more than 11.5 million documents held by the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca containing information about the offshore, secret bank accounts and transactions of hundreds of thousands of the firm’s clients. The documents were leaked to journalists in April, prompting many national governments – including South Africa’s – to start investigating those who had been exposed, for tax evasion and other offences. More revelations are expected soon as the Panama Papers become more accessible electronically.

Zellweger said the world was becoming tougher for the corrupt. Twenty years ago, bribes were tax deductible for companies in Switzerland and many other countries. Now they were illegal. The release of the Panama Papers had also illustrated how difficult it was to hide dirty money today when so much information could be moved electronically. But it was still difficult to recover stolen assets, Zellweger said.

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by Peter Fabricius

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