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Friday, April 23, 2004

The Holocaust Money Trail

Nearly 6 years ago the then US Senator Alfonse d'Amato stood on the steps of a New York courthouse and announced a historic agreement.

The Swiss banks had agreed to pay $1.25billion to settle a number of suits laid against them, the most significant concerning dormant accounts.

The banks had been accused of profiting from accounts opened by European Jews who died in the Holocaust.

$800m was put aside to compensate the heirs to such accounts. But only $156m has been paid out so far. Next week (April 29, 2004) Judge Edward Korman, who oversaw the original settlement, will hold hearings to decide what to do with any residual funds.

The Judge insists that he will do his utmost to find the heirs to accounts before giving the money away.

But he says the Swiss banks must provide more information. In an interview for Today, he called on the Swiss banks to extend the original agreement on accounts and give the court access to all 4.1 million bank records from the period 1933-45.

He accused them of hiding behind secrecy laws and suggested that such laws only benefited tax evaders, criminals, and corrupt dictators.

The Swiss banks' lawyer has said they have complied with all the court's requirements and that they are not responsible for any delay in processing claims.

However Riccardo Sansonetti from the Swiss Treasury told us that the information needed by authorities is available on demand.

"It's very clear that (banking secrecy) is not an absolute secrecy," he insisted. "When the authorities need access to information, banking secrecy is always lifted."

He also defended the systems in place to track down the appropriate people to disseminate any money to.

"We had special inquiries conducted in Switzerland and also a commission of experts doing historical research and clarifying all the aspects, so I think all the banks have been audited and searched, all their files, in order to get all the information needed."

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