Stars, businessmen, suspected criminals among HSBC clientele

HSBC

Business executives, politicians, rich heiresses along with alleged arms traders, drug traffickers and al-Qaeda backers figure among the HSBC clients listed in secret bank documents that Monday sparked a global outcry over tax dodgers and the banks which help them. The documents claim HSBC’s Swiss banking arm helped clients in more than 200 countries evade taxes on accounts totalling $119 billion (104 billion euros). Here is a profile of some of the more than 100,000 customers listed in the ‘Swissleaks’ cache of secret files, stolen by an IT worker in 2007 and passed to French authorities. Inclusion in the list does not automatically imply wrongdoing. Swiss clients had placed the most money with the Geneva-based bank, at $31.2 billion, followed by British nationals at $21.7 billion, Venezuelans at $14.8 billion and Americans at $13.4 billion. Israel, which came in sixth with its nationals holding $10 billion in HSBC Switzerland accounts, found some of its wealthiest citizens on the list, including billionaire businessman Beny Steinmetz and his brother Daniel, who made a fortune in diamonds with more than $100 million to their names. Film stars, super models, rock stars and fashion designers were also clients, although many of them maintain they have already come clean and made amends for previously hidden accounts. Arlette Ricci, the heiress to French fashion designer Nina Ricci’s estate, will go on trial for fiscal fraud in France next week. The Swiss daily Tages Anzeiger focused Monday on some of the suspected criminals on the list. It mentioned the case of a Belgian-Lebanese diamond trader in Antwerp who has since been jailed in Belgium for trading in illegal diamonds. The man had been able to open an HSBC account despite UN accusations in 2001 that he had breached an international embargo on dealing in so-called ‘blood diamonds’ from Sierra Leone. The account remained open despite a fiscal fraud probe in 2005, and between 2006 and 2007 the man deposited more than $2.8 million, the TA newspaper reported. According to Belgian daily Le Soir, at least 916 of the more than 3,000 Belgians in the files were diamond merchants from Antwerp. HSBC’s Swiss arm also held an account for a Guinean company that was delivering arms to Liberia in 2003, in the middle of a civil war, TA reported. That account held $7.14 million in 2007, the documents show. The Swiss daily also highlighted that a list of French client names had been compared to a Europol database, resulting in 120 matches, including numerous alleged drug traffickers. Also reportedly figuring on the client list are members of Osama bin Laden’s known family and members of the so-called ‘Golden Chain’ of wealthy Arabs suspected by US investigators of being al-Qaeda’s main backers. According to the Swissleaks files, an account held by a 70-year-old Saudi national, who is the head of an international conglomerate and reportedly connected to the ‘Golden Chain,’ was bulging with up to $70 million. Russian daily Vedomosti said it had not found any of Russia’s top politicians when it trawled through the files but instead located some 740 Russian ‘millionaire civil servants’. Most of them had worked for the state or large state-owned businesses and public banking establishments, but none remained in a position of responsibility or at the helm of Russian public companies, the paper said. British daily The Guardian also revealed that Richard Caring, the owner of numerous chains of restaurants and stores, in September 2005 had withdrawn five million Swiss francs from his HSBC account in Geneva, in cash—enough to fill a suitcase. Since then, HSBC Switzerland has limited a single cash withdrawal to $10,000.