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Swiss Banks’ Role Questioned Again After Ceausescu, Noriega

December 28, 1989

BERN, Switzerland (AP) _ Whenever authoritarian rulers are toppled, the question invariably arises: What about their Swiss bank accounts?

The role of Swiss banks, traditional havens of capital from other countries, has prompted criticism following the recent ousters of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega of Panama. Both are alleged to have stashed personal fortunes in Switzerland.

″Once more, the reputation of the Swiss financial center is being dragged through the mud,″ said the Geneva newspaper Tribunbe de Geneve on Thursday.

Sergio Salvioni, a Swiss lawyer representing the Philippine government in its efforts to recover Ferdinand Marcos’ funds, said, ″If this continues, (the Swiss) will be considered as ... receivers of stolen goods.″

The government, concerned about its image, swiftly slapped a freeze on any accounts Ceausescu may hold, even without waiting for a formal request by the new Romanian leadership. It also responded immediately to a Washington request to block assets linked to Noriega.

But tracking down the funds won’t be enough. If similar cases in the past set a pattern, a long and complicated legal battle is likely before any assets are repatriated. And estimates of their size vary widely.

Ceausescu, according to Romanian exile sources, is believed to have transferred $400 million, much of it in gold, to Switzerland during his reign. The Romanian National Bank asked all countries to freeze any Ceausescu accounts.

Ceausescu had denied that any such accounts exist. Credit Suisse, one of the two Swiss banks that received the freeze order, has said it had no evidence of Ceausescu funds. The other, Union Bank, declined comment, citing banking secrecy rules.

Noriega’s alleged accounts might be easier to come by because the U.S. request for assistance names the banks where funds are suspected. U.S. Justice Department spokesman David Runkel said Noriega was thought to have transferred at least $10 million into various accounts in Europe.

In both cases, Swiss reaction was as prompt as it was following the ousters in 1986 of Marcos and of Haiti’s Jean-Claude Duvalier. But efforts by new leaders to recover the allegedly ill-gotten wealth drag on.

Assets held in Switzerland by Marcos and his associates are estimated by the Manila government at hundreds of millions of allegedly ill-gotten dollars. They remain frozen since 1986 pending completion of complex proceedings.

Lawyers for the Marcos family filed appeals at virtually every level so that a final decision is likely to have to come from the Federal Tribunal, the Swiss supreme court. Last week, however, an initial $2.3 million returned to Manila.

No appeal was filed in the proceedings concerning Duvalier assets, suggesting that only minor amounts were involved. In November, the supreme court formally granted legal assistance to the Haitian authorities. But so far there have been no word of any funds being repatriated.

In 1974, the military leaders who overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia claimed that he had transferred $15 billion abroad, much of it to Switzerland. But they never addressed a formal request to the Swiss government and did not renewed their claim later.

Similarly unconfirmed reports about secret Swiss accounts allegedly held by Third World leaders have abounded in the Swiss press for decades. Former presidents Juan Peron of Argentina, Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua and Hugo Banzer of Bolivia were among many names mentioned.

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