BERN, Switzerland (AP) _ With the approval of key legislation, Switzerland’s Parliament moved toward opening the books of Swiss banks to see if they conceal any financial misdeeds against victims of the Nazi Holocaust.
The 163-member lower house voted unanimously Monday in favor of creating an independent commission to investigate the Swiss banks’ role during the Holocaust. The bill was proposed after massive international pressure.
``The entire moral reputation of our country is at stake,″ said Lili Nabholz, a key sponsor. ``The facts must not be suppressed, but be laid once and for all on the table ... What we are doing today, we are doing late. But it isn’t too late.″
The upper house is expected to approve the law in December, and Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti has said it should be implemented by April.
The bill gives an independent commission of experts up to five years to complete its investigation and guarantees full access to all documents. Banks and lawyers would not be allowed to hide behind banking secrecy laws that protect them from having to reveal who owns accounts.
``What is needed now is an unimpeded search for the truth,″ Cotti said. But he conceded it would be difficult after more than 50 years and that results might be disappointing.
Jewish groups claim that Swiss banks hold $7 billion in assets and interest belonging to Jews killed by the Nazis.
The Swiss banks say they have found about $32 million in unclaimed assets that could have belonged to Holocaust victims.
Britain has suggested that Swiss vaults also still contain hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gold plundered by Nazi Germany and sold to Swiss banks at cut prices.
Under a 1946 agreement with the victorious allies, Switzerland paid $60 million to Britain, the United States and France as settlement for all claims on the Nazi gold.
Historians say any other gold probably has long since been sold.
Switzerland has made several attempts over the years to satisfy Jewish claims, most recently in September when it gave Jewish organizations $810,000.
The issue of Switzerland’s wartime role as a tiny neutral country surrounded by the Axis powers was revived last year with the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.
At a war observance, the Swiss government for the first time apologized to Jews for ``unforgivable wrongs″ committed during the Holocaust.
The committee created by the new legislation will not investigate individual claims from the relatives of Nazi victims. That is being handled by a commission set up by the Swiss Bankers Association and Jewish organizations, headed by Paul Volcker, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve.