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Firing of night watchman may hinder Swiss effort to restore its reputation

February 23, 1997

BERN, Switzerland (AP) _ A night watchman who saved Holocaust-era bank documents from being shredded has been fired, a move that could hinder Switzerland’s efforts to restore a reputation battered by criticism of its wartime activities.

Christophe Meili, who rescued archive material he found last month in the shredding room at Union Bank of Switzerland, has been dismissed, effective the end of April, vice director Christian Tschopp said Sunday.

Wache AG had suspended Meili with full pay in January.

``As a night watchman in a position of trust, Mr. Meili didn’t behave as he should have done,″ by revealing the confidential material, Tschopp told The Associated Press.

Meili turned the documents over to the Hebrew Congregation of Zurich.

Meili may face charges for violating bank secrecy laws _ despite a nationwide ban on destroying archive material.

Alfonse D’Amato, the New York senator who has led the international campaign against the Swiss’ wartime dealings with the Nazis, was furious over Meili’s dismissal.

``It is an outrage. It is despicable,″ he said in a statement.

Meili and his lawyer could not be reached for comment.

The news came as the government stepped up efforts to overcome allegations that it served as banker to the Nazis during the war and siphoned off Jewish assets.

Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti is scheduled to meet Monday with Israel Singer, general-secretary of the World Jewish Congress, for talks on how best to use a $68 million humanitarian fund established for Holocaust victims.

Jewish groups say Swiss banks have as much as $7 billion in now-dormant World War II-era Jewish bank accounts. The banks have found only a few million dollars, although they have set up a joint investigation with Jewish groups to investigate further.

Switzerland was neutral during the war, providing a haven for 27,000 Jewish refugees and bank safety for their assets. But the country also turned away 30,000 other Jewish refugees, and some heirs of Holocaust victims say they haven’t been able to recover the savings of family members killed by the Nazis.

As part of its investigation into Switzerland’s wartime activities, the government last year ordered banks not to destroy archive material. UBS, the country’s biggest bank, was embarrassed when Meili discovered the documents awaiting destruction.

The bank immediately suspended its chief archivist, but it also accused Meili of vague underhanded motives in handing over documents to a Jewish group in Zurich _ after a delay of two days.

The 29-year-old whistle blower has filed suit against the bank and its chairman, accusing them of slander.

``This man is an international hero,″ said D’Amato. ``The criminals are the ones who ordered the shredding of the documents and those who would have Mr. Meili fired.″

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