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Falciani absent as Swiss begin criminal trial over HSBC data

Herve Falciani

Swiss prosecutors have opened the criminal trial of a former computer technician at HSBC Private Bank in Geneva without the defendant, who refused to leave France to face charges.

Herve Falciani, who spirited away data that created an international scandal for the bank over its role in tax evasion, is living in France, where he is safe from extradition to face the charges that he stole data from the bank, engaged in financial espionage and broke Swiss bank and secrecy rules.

Falciani fled Geneva in 2008 with files that have been shared with governments around the world, which have used them to recover a portion of taxes that were illegally hidden from sight.

Swiss prosecutors have said that he absconded with 13,619 client files, or about 75 percent of the active accounts HSBC’s Swiss private bank at the time, travelling to Lebanon under an alias and visiting banks there with his girlfriend, hoping to sell them the data that he later provided to authorities in France and elsewhere.

The international publication of revelations of wrongdoing in a report on the files, published earlier this year by ICIJ, Le Monde and dozens of other media outlets, touched off investigations in France, Belgium, the United Kingdom and eventually in Switzerland. The bank, which said when the Swiss Leaks report was published that it was well on its way to cleaning up practices, agreed with Geneva prosecutors in June to pay a record-breaking fine of $41.7 million for “past organizational deficiencies” to end the matter and avoid criminal charges.

Last week Falciani held a press conference in the French town, Divonne-les-Bains, less than a mile from the Swiss border. He said he would be willing to explain his actions to a court outside of Switzerland such as the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg France.

"I won't do it in Switzerland where the conditions for a just and fair trial are, in my opinion, not met," he said at the news conference.

On the same day the trial began, HSBC also reported a large increase in pre-tax profits for the third quarter, compared with the same period a year ago, despite lower revenue. The profits were up 32 percent, beating analysts' expectations. The company attributed the improved results to paying less in regulatory fines and to cost-cutting measures, including the decision announced in June to cut thousands of jobs.

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