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27 February 2024

Baer denies allegations of tax avoidance

By Agencies


Swiss bank Julius Baer denied on Saturday claims by a website that its Cayman Islands branch was used for tax avoidance schemes, one day after a US judge lifted an order that had shut down the site.

Wikileaks.org republished claims by a former Baer employee and self-proclaimed whistleblower that the Zurich-based bank used its international network to help clients avoid taxes after the federal judge lifted the lockdown on free-speech grounds.

Baer, however, said it hadn't broken any rules and that the republished claims that the bank used its Cayman Island branch for tax schemes were false.

"We reject that entirely. This is untrue," said spokesman Martin Somogyi. "We have a subsidiary there and it acts according to local law and is fully regulated."

The Baer case has received attention in Europe because of Germany's assault on the tax haven Liechtenstein, the tiny principality that shares a border and extensive financial ties with Switzerland, home to many private banks that cater to the very wealthy.

Many countries say secrecy laws in Liechtenstein - which is on the black list of countries that do not comply with transparency guidelines compiled by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, or the OECD - helps their citizens to evade taxes.

Baer said on Thursday that the documents posted on Wikileaks.org alleged tax and money laundering schemes involving Cayman Islands accounts. The bank said the documents were falsified and it denied the claims made in them.

Somogyi said the claims were old, dating back to the 2002 theft of confidential client information by a former employee, and that the documents had been in the public domain since at least 2005.

Baer sued Wikileaks and web domain operator Dynadot earlier this month after the site posted documents including bank records of about 1,600 clients with accounts in a Baer subsidiary in the Cayman Islands.

"Whatever was published on Wikileaks.org was forwarded to several newspapers in 2005 and has been in the public domain since then," Somogyi said.

"These are stolen and forged documents. They have been manipulated in terms of names and dates."

US District Judge Jeffrey White honored Baer's request and issued a permanent injunction on February 15 ordering Dynadot, based in San Mateo, California, to disable the Wikileaks.org domain.

But following an international free-speech backlash against both the judge and Baer, and after arguments by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and other free-speech groups, Judge White reversed his order on Friday.

White ruled that Baer could continue with its lawsuit against the website, Wikileaks.org, and Dynadot LLC, the site's domain-name registrar.

Baer spokesman Somogyi said that the bank acknowledged the new ruling but declined to comment further on it.