HSBC files Huge cache of leaked material reveals how Swiss arm of



HSBC files Huge cache of leaked material reveals how Swiss arm of
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HSBC files
Huge cache of leaked
material reveals how
Swiss arm of the world’s
second biggest bank
colluded with clients to
dodge taxes and hide millions
Monday ..
Published in London
and Manchester
Newspaper of the year
Winner of the
Pulitzer prize
• Secret papers
lay bare catalogue
of wrongdoing at
Swiss operation
• Customers took
away bricks of
foreign currency
in used banknotes
• HSBC concedes
misconduct and
lax controls at
private bank
David Leigh
James Ball
Juliette Garside
David Pegg
HSBC’s Swiss banking arm helped wealthy
customers dodge taxes and conceal millions of dollars of assets, doling out bundles of untraceable cash and advising clients on how to circumvent domestic tax
authorities, according to a huge cache of
leaked secret bank account files.
The files – obtained through an international collaboration of news outlets,
including the Guardian, the French daily
Le Monde, BBC Panorama and the Washington-based International Consortium
of Investigative Journalists – reveal that
HSBC’s Swiss private bank:
• Routinely allowed clients to withdraw
bricks of cash, often in foreign currencies
of little use in Switzerland.
• Aggressively marketed schemes likely
to enable wealthy clients to avoid European taxes.
• Colluded with some clients to conceal
undeclared “black” accounts from their
domestic tax authorities.
• Provided accounts to international
criminals, corrupt businessmen and other
high-risk individuals.
The HSBC files, which cover the period
2005-2007, amount to the biggest banking leak in history, shedding light on some
30,000 accounts holding almost $120bn
(£78bn) of assets.
The revelations will amplify calls
for crackdowns on offshore tax havens
and stoke political arguments in the US,
Britain and elsewhere in Europe where
exchequers are seen to be fighting a losing battle against fleet-footed and wealthy
individuals in the globalised world.
Approached by the Guardian, HSBC,
the world’s second largest bank, has now
admitted wrongdoing by its Swiss subsidiary. “We acknowledge and are accountable for past compliance and control failures,” the bank said in a statement. The
Swiss arm, the statement said, had not
been fully integrated into HSBC after its
purchase in 1999, allowing “significantly
lower” standards of compliance and due
diligence to persist.
That response raises serious questions
about oversight of the Swiss operation by
the then senior executives of its parent
company, HSBC Group, headquartered in
London. It has now acknowledged that it
was not until 2011 that action was taken
to bring the Swiss bank into line. “HSBC
was run in a more federated way than it
is today and decisions were frequently
taken at a country level,” the bank said.
HSBC was headed during the period
covered in the files by Stephen Green –
now Lord Green – who served as the global
bank’s chief executive, then group chairman until 2010 when he left to become a
trade minister in the House of Lords for
David Cameron’s new government. He
declined to comment when approached
by the Guardian.
Although tax authorities around the
world have had confidential access to the
leaked files since 2010, the true nature of
the Swiss bank’s misconduct has never
been made public until now. Hollywood
stars, shopkeepers, royalty and clothing
merchants feature in the files along with
the heirs to some of Europe’s biggest
According to the files, HSBC’s Swiss
bankers were also prepared to help Emmanuel Shallop, who was subsequently convicted of dealing in “blood diamonds”, the
illegal trade that fuelled war in Africa.
One memo records: “We have opened
a company account for him based in
Dubai … The client is currently being
very careful because he is under pressure
from the Belgian tax authorities who are
investigating his activities in the field of
diamond tax evasion.”
The records indicate HSBC managers
were untroubled that a customer collecting cash bundles of kroner might be
breaking Danish law. HSBC staff were
instructed: “All contacts through one of
her 3 daughters living in London. Account
holder living in Denmark, i.e. critical as it
is a criminal act having an account abroad
non declared.”
HSBC’s Swiss bankers routinely handed
over large sums of cash to visiting clients,
asking few questions, the files show. The
bank said it had since tightened its controls. “The amended terms and conditions
allowed the private bank to refuse a cash
withdrawal request, and placed strict
controls on withdrawals over $10,000
[£6,600],” its statement said.
One example of the old system detailed
in the files involves Richard Caring, a
British tycoon and owner of London’s
celebrity-packed Ivy restaurant, who on
one day in 2005 removed 5m Swiss francs
(£2.25m) in cash . When the Guardian
• How HSBC bankers actively
helped clients to keep accounts
secret from the tax authorities
• The Ivy restaurant tycoon who
asked for m Swiss francs in cash
• HSBC’s response. And why we
say these leaks must be revealed
Page -!
asked him why, he declined to explain.
His lawyer said it was a private matter
and involved no impropriety. Caring’s UK
tax status allowed him legally to keep his
accounts secret from the tax authorities.
The documents show HSBC’s Swiss
subsidiary providing banking services
to relatives of dictators, people implicated in African corruption scandals,
arms industry figures and others. Swiss
banking rules have since 1998 required
high levels of diligence on the accounts
of politically connected figures, but the
documents suggest that at the time HSBC
happily provided banking services to such
controversial individuals.
The Guardian’s evidence of a pattern
of misconduct at HSBC in Switzerland is
supported by the outcome of recent court
cases in the US and Europe. The bank
was named in the US as a co-conspirator
for handing over “bricks” of $100,000 a
time to American surgeon Andrew Silva
in Geneva, so that he could illegally post
cash back to the US.
In France, an HSBC manager, Nessim
el-Maleh, was able to run a cash pipeline
in which plastic bags full of currency from
the sale of marijuana to immigrants in the
Paris suburbs were collected. The cash was
then taken round to HSBC’s respectable clients in the French capital. Bank accounts
back in Switzerland were manipulated to
reimburse the drug dealers.
HSBC is already facing criminal investigations and charges in France, Belgium,
the US and Argentina as a result of the leak
of the files, but no legal action has been
taken against it in Britain.
Former tax inspector Richard Brooks
tells BBC Panorama in a programme to be
aired on Monday night: “I think they were
a tax avoidance and tax evasion service.
I think that’s what they were offering …
There are very few reasons to have an offshore bank account, apart from just saving
tax. There are some people who can use
an ... account to avoid tax legally. For others it’s just a way to keep money secret.”
The Guardian | Monday 9 February 2015
The Guardian | Monday 9 February 2015
HSBC files
Catalogue of
by bankers
HSBC response
‘Standards of due diligence were
significantly lower than today’
In the past, the Swiss private
banking industry operated
very differently to the way
it does today. Private banks, including
HSBC’s Swiss private bank, assumed
that responsibility for payment of taxes
rested with individual clients, rather
than the institutions that banked them.
Swiss private banks were typically used
by wealthy individuals to manage their
wealth in a discreet manner.
Although there are numerous
legitimate reasons to have a Swiss bank
account, in some cases individuals
took advantage of bank secrecy to hold
undeclared accounts. This resulted in
private banks, including HSBC’s Swiss
private bank, having a number of clients
that may not have been fully compliant
with their applicable tax obligations. We
acknowledge and are accountable for
past compliance and control failures.
We have taken significant steps over
the past several years to implement
reforms and exit clients who did not
meet strict new HSBC standards.
HSBC’s Swiss private bank has reduced
its client base by almost 70% since 2007.
Major regulatory reform is under
way in numerous jurisdictions
to ensure … that in the near
future, an individual wishing
to “hide” assets from tax
authorities will be unable to
do so. HSBC fully welcomes and
supports these reforms.
[HSBC acquired] the Republic
National Bank of New York and Safra
Republic Holdings SA, a US private
bank in 1999. The Swiss private bank
was largely acquired through this
transaction. The Republic/Safra business focused on a very different client
base and had a significantly different
culture to HSBC. The business acquired
was not fully integrated into HSBC,
allowing different cultures and standards to persist. Too many small and
high-risk accounts were maintained.
We acknowledge that the compliance
culture and standards of due diligence
in HSBC’s Swiss private bank, as well
as the industry in general, were significantly lower than they are today. At the
same time, HSBC was run in a more federated way than it is today and decisions
were frequently taken at a country level.
In January 2011, new group management fundamentally changed the way
HSBC is structured, managed and controlled. HSBC completely overhauled
its private banking business, adding to
initiatives it had taken with US clients
beginning in 2008. Today, the management team in Switzerland which is carrying out these reforms is substantially
different to the period before 2011.
Beginning in 2012, Global Private
Banking [GPB] developed a tax trans-
HSBC’s Swiss arm actively abetted clients
in keeping accounts secret from taxmen
David Leigh
James Ball
Juliette Garside
David Pegg
The HSBC files, the biggest banking leak in
history, reveal the full scale of malpractice
at its Swiss subsidiary.
In one case that illustrates the bank’s
conduct, a wealthy British client,
Stoke City football club director Keith
Humphreys, frankly told his HSBC
manager that his father’s £280,000 Swiss
account was “not declared” to the UK tax
Humphreys, whose wealth originated
from the sale of a local supermarket
chain, explained that one HSBC manager
had already advised how to extract undeclared offshore money via a credit card.
“The credit card is thus used to enable
the Humphreys family to make withdrawals from ‘cash points’ when they are outside the UK,” he said.
The banker, who even brought paperwork to Humphreys’ stately home in
Cheshire because the client was uneasy
about “walking around with a set of
account-opening documents”, recorded
how Humphreys was also alarmed to
hear a Swiss lawyer might realise he had
a secret HSBC account. “This situation
initially appeared to cause some disquiet
to my hosts, though this later gave way
to a more relaxed attitude with the sentiment that Genevan lawyers would be
discreet, something that I did nothing to
On clinching arrangements in London, the bank manager wrote: “We subsequently repaired to the Ritz, for a very
enjoyable lunch.” Humphreys told the
Guardian his father eventually had to
repay about £147,000 for evading tax due
to the UK.
Another customer, retired accountant
Andrew Sebastian, also told the Guardian
how he had now been made to pay about
£42,000 in back tax, interest and penalties. HSBC in Switzerland had supplied
him with £50,000 in sterling banknotes
in the course of a year.
Alpine shelters
The numbered bank account is now
illegal in most western countries, but
it remains a key part of Switzerland’s
fabled banking secrecy. A depositor’s identity will be known to only
a select group of employees, and to
withdraw cash or make a wire transfer, the account holder is asked for
a codeword. At HSBC’s Swiss bank,
codenames – Painter, Captain Kirk and
Capitaine Haddock – were also used to
disguise the identity of some clients.
Swiss law enshrined secrecy in
1934. Over the following decades,
Alpine vaults sheltered the fortunes of
families escaping the Holocaust, but
also provided a hiding place for looted
assets. By 2018, Switzerland has committed to automatic exchange of information about individual accounts,
taxes, assets and income along with 50
other nations. Known as the convention on mutual administrative assistance in tax matters, and organised by
the economic thinktank the OECD, this
information exchange been trumpeted
as the end of banking secrecy. But the
1934 law, albeit amended, remains in
place. A breach of professional confidentiality, even for retired bankers
or those who have had their licence
revoked, is punishable by three years
in jail. Juliette Garside
In the US, the bank was named as a coconspirator for handing over “bricks” of
$100,000 (£65,000) a time to American
surgeon Andrew Silva in Geneva, so that
he could illegally post cash back to the US.
The leaked Swiss HSBC files implicate the bank in apparent misbehaviour
all over the world. One Australia-based
HSBC client planned to share his “black”
account with his daughter in London.
The bank noted: “The account is ‘undeclared’, a fact with which [she] may not be
entirely at ease – as a compliance officer
at Kleinwort Benson.” The manager wrote
that the account was also not declared
“to the best of my knowledge” to the tax
authorities in Australia.
HSBC was so keen to protect its clients,
that it used a codename when phoning
another prominent Australian financier,
Charles Goode, then chairman of the ANZ
bank in Melbourne, about his US$318,000
deposit. According to the files, HSBC
instructed he “would like to be called Mr
Shaw”. Goode told the Guardian the use
of a codename was the bank’s idea, not
his, and the deposit had long been left
dormant by him. He says he has paid all
tax due on the account.
Another HSBC manager wrote on the
file of Irish businessman John Cashell
(later to be convicted of a tax fraud): “His
preoccupation is with the risk of disclosure to the Irish authorities. Once again I
endeavoured to reassure him that there is
no risk of that happening.”
HSBC recorded on the file of a British
property developer: “He is very much
concerned that … client information could
be exchanged … I explained him that we
are bound to CH [Swiss] banking secrecy
which is one of the strictest in the world.”
In a separate transaction, the bankers
recorded that they were uneasy when a
Serbian businessman wanted to deposit
€20m (£15m). But they merely asked him
to act less conspicuously.
HSBC “explained that as per today the
bank did not interfere in his money transfer transactions but would have preferred
to reduce those activities on a lower scale.
[He] understands our concerns and will
use smaller amounts”.
The bankers seem to have been reluctant to take risks personally. The files
record that a wealthy owner of a London
furniture store and holder of a secret HSBC
Swiss account, demanded HSBC “help
him get back money into the UK on a ‘nondeclared’ basis” by carrying in bundles of
cash.” HSBC offered instead to provide
him or a colleague with sterling banknotes in Switzerland, recording, “what he
decided to do with friends of his … was
his affair”. In a revealing remark, an HSBC
manager wrote on the files: “We made
clear the difference between passive and
active action on our part.”
This tax evader also ended up repaying
UK authorities, as part of a £135m haul Britain has so far recovered from HSBC’s taxdodging customers. Chris Meares, then
overall head of HSBC private banking,
assured the Treasury committee in 2008:
“We prohibit our bankers from encouraging or being involved in tax evasion.”
But former tax inspector Richard
Brooks, author of The Great Tax Robbery,
who is interviewed about HSBC on BBC
Panorama tonight, says: “I think they were
a tax avoidance and tax evasion service. I
think that’s what they were offering. They
knew full well that people come to them
to doge their tax liabilities. There are very
few reasons to have an offshore bank
account, apart from just saving tax.”
HSBC says it won’t comment on many
of the specific allegations because of ongoing criminal investigations and because of
Swiss bank secrecy laws.
The Swiss
Clockwise from
left: Richard
Caring, Bill
Clinton and Sir
Philip Green at
Caring’s charity
Napoleonic ball
in St Petersburg;
the clothing
and restaurant
tycoon’s London
dubbed the
‘Versailles of
his friends,
Philip and Tina
Green; HSBC’s
private bank in
Geneva where
clients came
to collect cash;
Hervé Falciani,
an IT worker at
the bank who
first blew the
whistle on HSBC
Rex Features
The client £2m in cash? Ivy restaurant tycoon too prized for bank to say no
David Leigh
James Ball
Juliette Garside
David Pegg
Accompanied by a hired bodyguard,
Richard Caring, British clothing tycoon
and restaurateur, stepped out of his
Geneva bank on a warm September day
in 2005 with 5m Swiss francs in cash
– the equivalent of £2.25m ($3.4m) –
enough to fill a suitcase.
It was a transaction concealed, or so
HSBC’s bankers believed at the time,
behind an impenetrable wall of Swiss
secrecy. This mysterious event is now
revealed in the leaked HSBC files and
it demonstrates the way the bankers
were willing at the time to hand over
very large cash sums to their offshore
Richard Brooks, an ex-tax inspector
and author of The Great Tax Robbery,
told the Guardian: “Banks are supposed
to fill in suspicious activity reports for
such transactions.” He added: “In the
UK I don’t think you would be allowed
to withdraw that kind of cash.”
HSBC, which now admits past wrongdoing and lax controls at its Swiss banking arm, says it has since reformed such
cash payments, making it possible to
refuse them, and bringing in new “strict
controls on withdrawals over [£6,600]”.
The Guardian asked Caring, owner
of the Ivy restaurant in London, who in
Switzerland was to receive this untrace-
able cash consignment, and why. He
would not explain. His lawyers said: “It
is a private matter in which there was no
impropriety on our client’s part.”
The bank did not record on Caring’s
file who in Switzerland was to receive
the cash. It recorded only that Caring said he planned to deposit it in “a
new a/c with a separate institution in
Geneva … He did not feel it appropriate
for either bank to be aware of the relationship with the other”.
The Ivy restaurant in
London, a favourite
haunt of celebrities
and one of the string
of restaurants and
clubs owned by
Richard Caring
In internal memos, HSBC displayed
concern about handing over the banknotes, but sought to justify its behaviour
by recording: “RC goes to great lengths
to maintain discretion.”
Caring had recently, in July 2005,
made clear that if he was crossed by
the bank, he was prepared to take away
his lucrative business. HSBC had previously objected to a currency shortfall on
an account. There was “a lengthy and
challenging conversation” as a result,
the bank noted. “It would be possible
for him to send funds from Monaco at
a moment’s notice, should we insist.
However, they would be accompanied
by instructions to close the account. He
expects us to consider his global relationship.” The bank was anxious, as it
put it, “to bring this relationship back
on track and to try to repair some of the
damage”. It believed Caring was worth
up to £500m worldwide.
Some weeks later, on Monday 5 September, he summoned an HSBC banker
to his London office near Euston station,
and demanded that he authorise the
£2.25m payment, to be handed over to
him in Swiss francs, in Switzerland. “He is extremely valued,” the
Swiss bankers wrote. But they at first
demurred: “RC is fully aware that his
request is exceptional, particularly
in view of the amount involved. He
stressed, however, that he has an extensive relationship with the Group … and
that all his dealings have been conducted entirely correctly over the years.”
HSBC added: “He stressed … due to his
non-UK domicile status … he holds funds
outside of the UK entirely legitimately.”
Caring is a UK-born citizen, who
lives in London in a mansion known as
the “Versailles of Hampstead”. But he
claimed hereditary “non-domiciled”
tax status thanks to the US origins of
his father, a former GI who settled
in London after the war. This quirk
enabled Caring not to disclose the existence of his Swiss or Monaco accounts
to the UK tax authorities, and legally to
avoid taxes on his capital held there.
The bank made a point of noting that
Sir John Bond, the main bank group
chairman and other top executives,
were personal acquaintances of Caring.
(There is no suggestion Bond was aware
of the cash transaction.) The head of the
Swiss bank himself, Peter Braunwalder,
eventually gave the go-ahead with “our
exceptional agreement to this request”.
Caring’s lawyers told the Guardian
there were “internal administrative
procedures … to check the legitimacy
of the transaction and avoid moneylaundering”. The bank had been satisfied with his explanation, they said.
According to the bank’s files, the
funds for the cash handover originated
from accounts in the tax haven of
Monaco secretly controlled by Caring,
but held under the name of Tina Green,
wife of the Topshop billionaire Sir Philip
Green. Caring was one of his major suppliers, and a close personal friend.
The bank recorded: “As we know,
until now [Caring] has hesitated from
holding the vast majority of his cash
assets in his own name, preferring to
accept the offer of Mrs Green that she
holds them in trust on his behalf.”
There is no suggestion either of the
Greens knew about the consignment of
cash, or broke any laws.
The bank noted that Caring’s offshore
accounts, containing more than £100m,
were, among other things, husbanding
profits from an “anonymous” 22%
holding in BHS, part of Green’s fashion
empire. Neither Caring nor Green
Video The full story of how a single
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Interactive HSBC’s Swiss cash
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Plus all the reaction to the revelations
The top five The quintet of bankers
facing questions in the HSBC affair
Cash and carry The customers of
HSBC’s Swiss operation who took out
millions in untraceable banknotes
will say why the BHS investment was
concealed in this way. Caring insists
that he himself has always paid all due
taxes on time, including £33m UK tax on
dividends he received from BHS.
Green, a supporter of David Cameron
and a government adviser on “efficiency”, has come under fire from tax
campaigners. A huge £1.17bn dividend
from his companies was paid at this
time, apparently minimising tax, to his
wife in Monaco, who is registered as
their main beneficial owner.
Caring, a £413,000 donor to the Conservatives and previously a lender of £2m
to Labour, used his access to offshore
funds in 2005 to buy a string of restaurants and clubs, including London’s
favourite celebrity haunt the Ivy, Belgo,
Soho House and Wentworth golf course.
He made showy charitable gestures,
including a ball in a palace in St Petersburg. He handed over $1m (£650,000) for
Bill Clinton to attend in fancy dress, paid
to the former US president’s foundation.
HSBC said it was not allowed by
Swiss bank secrecy laws to discuss individuals. In a statement it said the Swiss
bank’s past “compliance culture and
standards of due diligence … were significantly lower than they are today”.
HSBC said it had since introduced a
tax transparency initiative under which
“amended terms and conditions allowed
the private bank to refuse a cash withdrawal request, and placed strict controls on withdrawals over US$10,000”.
parency policy, stating that it will close
accounts and refuse any new business
where it has reason to believe the client
or potential client is not in full compliance with relevant tax obligations.
Under the tax transparency initiative,
a review was conducted of existing
accounts. If not satisfactorily resolved,
the account was closed or put in the process to be closed as soon as practicable.
We also enhanced both our “knowyour-customer” procedures, including
an independent validation by auditors,
and our anti-money laundering
procedures to ensure a more complete
consideration of a new client’s source
of wealth. We amended our standard
terms and conditions to require the
client to affirm they are in compliance
with their tax obligations.
The amended terms and conditions
allowed the private bank to refuse a cash
withdrawal request, and placed strict
controls on withdrawals over $10,000
[£6,600]. We discontinued the hold
mail service and we implemented a new
policy to remediate [register the owners
of] any bearer shares in non-individual
accounts. In addition, we have withdrawn from markets where we are
unable to conduct due diligence
to a satisfactory standard on
our clients. We review all
Politically Exposed Persons
at the highest levels
within the group.
The number of accounts and total
client assets of the Swiss private bank
have been actively managed down by
this intensive de-risking exercise, where
we have put compliance and tax transparency ahead of profitability:
• In 2007, the Swiss private bank had
30,412 accounts. At the end of 2014, we
had reduced that number to 10,343.
• In 2007, the Swiss private bank had
total client assets of [about £78bn]. At
the end of 2014, that number has been
actively managed down to [£45bn].
In April 2012 HSBC chief executive,
Stuart Gulliver, announced HSBC’s
commitment to implement the highest or most effective standards across
the group to combat financial crime.
HSBC is following through on that commitment to Global Standards, and is
now just over two years into a five-year
programme to transform the way that
HSBC manages financial crime risk.
HSBC has cooperated and continues
to cooperate to the extent that it can
with requests for information from governments regarding account holders.
However, providing client data to foreign authorities would itself constitute
a criminal offence under Swiss law.
HSBC’s statement has been edited for
length and clarity
The Guardian
Revelations in the public interest
Swiss banks often get mentioned in
crime thrillers. They are depicted as
shady havens for James Bond types,
super-villains and African dictators.
Outside the pages of fiction, however, it
has been virtually impossible until now
to get at the reality.
Rigid laws protecting bank secrecy
have attracted billions from all over the
world. Canny Swiss bankers charged
high prices in return for their silence.
HSBC, headquartered in Britain and
led at the time by Sir John Bond, decided
to get in on this lucrative act in 1999. It
bought up an existing Swiss bank which
chased fresh customers.
But details of the Swiss operation’s
30,000 accounts were hacked in 2007
by its IT expert, Hervé Falciani, who fled
with them to France. The files have since
been reconstructed and their contents
confidentially distributed around the
world by French tax authorities.
The leaked files, as the bank now concedes, reveal considerable wrongdoing.
But does that make it right for the Guardian to expose the names of HSBC’s Swissaccount holders?
Not all HSBC’s Swiss private bank
customers are public figures and many
are not dishonest. Some want secrecy
for family reasons. The Guardian is not
naming such individuals. However,
others emerge, according to the files, as
would-be – though legal – tax avoiders
of one kind or another, who would have
deprived the UK and other countries of
revenue to provide public services. The
then head of the UK tax authority, Dave
Hartnett, told parliament that the thousands of names in the leaked HSBC data
were “all ripe for investigation”.
So the public should be entitled to
know what has been going on. But the
full range of behaviour also deserves to
be made clear. Some rich clients merely
use artificial loopholes – for example,
offshore trusts or historic quirks such
as Britain’s notorious “non-dom” tax
breaks. To critics, they may have sometimes exploited or even stretched the
law, but they have not broken it.
Other clients of the Swiss operation,
however, may have been downright tax
cheats, holding secret accounts, while
some carried cash out of their bank’s
Geneva doors in bundles of non-Swiss
currency that could not be spent locally.
Following the HSBC leak, scores of
its Swiss clients are under criminal
investigation, in Britain and globally.
Many others have paid civil penalties.
Other clients of HSBC now turn out to be
unsavoury characters, attracted by the
secrecy. Evidence exists that some may
have been smuggling drugs, handling
bribes, committing fraud, helping to
finance terrorists, or looting their own
countries. Others have done nothing
unlawful but have kept untaxed money
in Switzerland while making political
donations in Britain or the US.
In these cases, the Guardian believes
the public has a right to know.