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News of Swiss leaks rocks India Inc

A new storm raked up the black-money debate in India as the Indian Express on Monday in collobration with French newspaper Le Monde and International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published a transnational investigative news report in which the country’s top businessmen were named. 

The project codenamed Swiss Leaks was a collaborative investigation that exposed how the Swiss branch of one of the world’s biggest banks, HSBC, profited from doing business with tax dodgers and criminals around the world.  

India ranked 16 with assets of $ 4.1 billion ( around Rs 25000 crore) stashed in these offshore accounts.  Among 1195 Indians named in the reports were members of top business families such as the Ambanis, Burmans, Rahejas and Salgaocars. While some of them have denied the existence of these accounts, others have argued that these were legal in their responses

The list was led by Switzerland with $ 31.2 billion followed by United Kingdom, Venezuela , US and France.  

The files at the foundation of the Swiss Leaks articles and this interactive application are based on data secreted away by Hervé Falciani, a former HSBC employee-turned-whistleblower. He turned the data over to the French government in 2008 and its tax authority launched an investigation, ICIJ said in a note on its website.  

The French newspaper Le Monde obtained a version of the tax authority data, which covers accounts of more than 100,000 clients (individuals and legal entities) from more than 200 countries. The newspaper shared it with ICIJ with the agreement that it would assemble a global team of journalists to explore the data and produce this reporting project. 

The data essentially comes from three types of internal bank files from different time periods. One reflects clients and their associated private accounts at the Swiss branch of the bank mostly from 1988 to 2007. Another is a snapshot of the maximum amounts in the client accounts during 2006 and 2007. The third is of notes on clients and conversations with them made by bank employees during 2005.

When the project contacted HSBC, which is headquartered in London and has offices in 74 countries, the bank initially asked ICIJ to destroy data.  It later said disclosure standards have improved considerably from the time of data. 

“When ICIJ and its media partners contacted the bank for comment, HSBC, which is headquartered in London and has offices in 74 nations and territories on six continents, at first insisted that ICIJ destroy the data. Late last month, after being informed of the full extent of the reporting team’s findings, HSBC gave a final response that was more conciliatory. In addition to the statement, HSBC repeated that “we do not comment on specific clients, even to confirm whether or not they are or ever were clients.”

The files show the accounts to hold more than $ 100 billion in total, from $ 12.6 billion held in the name of governmental institutions from the oil rich nation of Venezuela under the late former leader Hugh Chávez, to amounts recorded as zero. The confidential files also provide a wealth of other detail, such as secretive offshore companies linked to some accounts.

Meanwhile Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley on Monday said that the names that have come forward in the report are already in the possession of the Indian government.  Inquiry has been going on over them but the government is waiting for the financial year assessment of account holders  to get over. After that resident Indians whose names appear on the list will face action as per law but merely names were not enough for legal action and strong evidence was required to  make any solid case for prosecution. 

Aam Aadmi Party convener Arvind Kejriwal who has been actively pursuing the black-money agenda for a while now tweeted through his personal twitter account saying “The names I revealed in a PC on 9 Nov 2012 are there in IE list today. We stand vindicated. But bigger Q is – what did first Cong and now BJP do? Nothing? Why? Some of these people claim to hv both BJP and Cong in their pocket. Why doesn’t BJP govt act against HSBC officials? They will spill the beans. US did precisely that.”

The key findings of the investigation according to ICIJ are: 

1. HSBC Private Bank (Suisse) continued to offer services to clients who had been unfavorably named by the United Nations, in court documents and in the media as connected to arms trafficking, blood diamonds and bribery.

HSBC served those close to discredited regimes such as that of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, former Tunisian president Ben Ali and current Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad.

2. Clients who held HSBC bank accounts in Switzerland include former and current politicians from Britain, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kenya, Romania, India, Liechtenstein, Mexico, Lebanon, Tunisia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Paraguay, Djibouti, Senegal, Philippines and Algeria.

3. The bank repeatedly reassured clients that it would not disclose details of accounts to national authorities, even if evidence suggested that the accounts were undeclared to tax authorities in the client’s home country. Bank employees also discussed with clients a range of measures that would ultimately allow clients to avoid paying taxes in their home countries. This included holding accounts in the name of offshore companies to avoid the European Savings Directive, a 2005 Europe-wide rule aimed at tackling tax evasion through the exchange of bank information.


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