08 March 2023

Four ex-bankers face Swiss trial over accounts ‘linked to Putin’

08 March 2023

Four former bankers with the Swiss affiliate of a major Russian bank have gone on trial over allegations that they did not properly check accounts opened in the name of a Russian cellist with ties to President Vladimir Putin.

The one-day trial in Zurich district court stems from information about secretive financial flows revealed in the Panama Papers leaks in 2016 that implicated Mr Putin’s childhood friend Sergei Roldugin.

It took years for prosecutors to unravel the web of money and bring the case to court.

The trial opens a rare window into allegations from the Panama Papers that a member of Mr Putin’s circle of friends helped funnel millions abroad and that financial employees may have turned a blind eye to such inflows. Mr Putin has denied the accusations.

Both before and since Mr Putin ordered forces into Ukraine, Western nations have imposed sanctions against oligarchs and others with close ties to his government, including Mr Roldugin. The US Treasury Department describes Mr Roldugin as “part of a system that manages President Putin’s offshore wealth”.

The former Gazprombank employees — three Russian-born and one Swiss-born who cannot be named under Swiss law — are charged with failing to adequately check whether Mr Roldugin, who was a client of the bank from 2014 to 2016, actually owned the assets in the accounts.

All four deny the charges, which include allegations of violating Swiss anti-money-laundering law.

A verdict is expected on March 30, according to Gazprombank Switzerland, which is in the process of winding down its operations and is not itself facing charges.

Documents filed when the accounts were opened listed expected transactions of 11.5 million Swiss francs (£10.3m). The indictment does not indicate how much of that may have arrived at the bank.

It is “publicly known that Russian President Putin officially has an income of just over 100,000 Swiss francs (£90,000) and is not wealthy, but in fact has enormous assets managed by people close to him”, according to the indictment.

The document says Gazprombank maintained the accounts despite “abundant” media reports about Mr Roldugin’s relationship to Mr Putin, including that he was godfather to one of Mr Putin’s daughters.

The bank’s documents listed Mr Roldugin’s income as 1 million Swiss francs a year, his assets at 10 million francs and his occupation as a musician, indicating that the money flows were “in no way plausible as Mr Roldugin’s own wealth” and that the way the accounts were structured indicated he was being used as “a straw man”, the indictment shows.

It cited a New York Times article published in 2014 that quotes Mr Roldugin as saying he did not have millions. He was registered as beneficial owner on the accounts of two companies, one based in Panama and one in Cyprus.

In 2016, when reports named Mr Roldugin as the owner of 2 billion dollars in offshore assets, Mr Putin denied having any links to offshore accounts and described the Panama Papers leaks as part of Western efforts to weaken Russia.

The public prosecutor’s office is calling for the defendants to receive a seven-month suspended prison sentence.

The Swiss affiliate of Gazprombank announced in October that it was ceasing operations after consultations with Swiss financial market regulator FINMA.

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