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Baer Ex-Banker Linked to WikiLeaks Detained in Zurich

Former Julius Baer Group Ltd. Employee Rudolf Elmer
Former employee of Julius Baer Group Ltd. Rudolf Elmer. Photographer: Gianluca Colla/Bloomberg

Rudolf Elmer, who handed over bank client data to WikiLeak’s Julian Assange this week, was detained in Zurich late yesterday as prosecutors investigate possible breaches of Swiss banking secrecy laws.

Elmer, a former employee of Julius Baer Group Ltd. in the Cayman Islands, on Jan. 17 handed two compact discs with data on about 2,000 cross-border bank accounts to Assange. A Zurich court fined Elmer yesterday for breaking the country’s client-secrecy laws and making a death threat against a bank employee in a case unrelated to WikiLeaks.

“These are new criminal proceedings,” said Zurich public prosecutor Peter Pellegrini in a phone interview today. “Now we will verify if the CD handover to Wikileaks, which according Elmer contain explosive bank client data, leads to the breach of Swiss banking laws.”

A Julius Baer employee for 15 years, Elmer says he wants to expose tax evasion through the use of offshore bank accounts. If the data given to Wikileaks includes Swiss clients, then the matter would fall under Swiss law even if the information was stolen in the Caymans, Pellegrini said.

Tethong Blattner, the Zurich law firm representing Elmer, said it will argue that Swiss law shouldn’t apply to a Cayman Islands unit of a bank. The prosecutor plans to request an arrest warrant for Elmer after searching his house last night and questioning him today, according to lawyer Ganden Tethong Blattner.

Investigating CDs

Pellegrini, who has to decide by tomorrow evening whether to request a warrant, declined to comment.

“We will now investigate what exactly is on these CDs,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be new data to start new proceedings.”

Passing information to any third party without a client’s consent is punishable in Switzerland by as much as five years in jail.

The former banker was found guilty yesterday by the criminal court of making a “threat, several counts of attempted duress and multiple counts of breaking banking secrecy,” Judge Sebastian Aeppli said. He imposed a fine of 7,200 Swiss francs ($7,500) which was suspended for two years and ordered to pay 75 percent of the costs. The prosecution had asked Elmer be sentenced to eight months in jail and a 2,000-franc fine.

While the court yesterday considered Elmer’s claim that he released the data because of “ethical concerns,” Aeppli said it determined the fact Elmer himself “was part of” and “profited from” the offshore banking system that he was criticizing was more important.

‘Big Mistakes’

Elmer and his lawyers are still deciding whether to appeal yesterday’s verdict.

“It wasn’t revenge, but I defended myself,” Elmer told reporters after the hearing yesterday. “I’ve made mistakes in this whole story, big mistakes. I’m neither a hero nor am I a traitor.”

WikiLeaks has drawn condemnation from the U.S. government for posting thousands of classified diplomatic communications and military documents to its website, including a video of a July 2007 helicopter attack in Iraq that killed a Reuters television cameraman and his driver.

Elmer “is a whistleblower and he has important things to say,” Assange said in London on Jan. 17.

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