Swiss authorities raid HSBC’s Geneva offices over tax claims

“A search is currently under way in the premises of the bank"

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HSBC’s Geneva offices were raided by Swiss prosecutors as they launched a criminal investigation into alleged money-laundering at Britain’s largest bank.

The troubled lender was hit by surprise visits at its Swiss private banking arm, which has been exposed for helping clients avoid and, in some cases, allegedly evade tax. Geneva’s public prosecutor launched the raids at HSBC’S two largest offices in the city, which are understood to have been searched throughout the day.

“A search is currently under way in the premises of the bank, led by Geneva’s attorney general Olivier Jornot and the prosecutor, Yves Bertossa,” city authorities said. “We are looking for everything and anything – documents and files.”

The raids were triggered by “recent published revelations” about HSBC. These have spiralled since whistleblower Hervé Falciani stole details about alleged client tax evasion from the bank’s Geneva office in 2008 and passed them to the French government, which later shared them with other countries, including the UK.

Details of thousands of accounts were leaked to the media last week, leading to allegations that HSBC had turned a blind eye to the activities of arms dealers and traders in blood diamonds.

On Sunday, bank CEO, Stewart Gulliver, wrote an open letter to customers, shareholders and staff apologising for “a painful experience”. Responding to today’s raids, the bank added: “We have cooperated continuously with Swiss authorities since first becoming aware of the data theft in 2008 and continue to co-operate.”

The Geneva prosecutor said the raids could extend to those suspected of participating in money laundering. However, the process is unlikely to be easy. Michael Lauber, Switzerland’s national attorney general, said: “The legal situation of this data is very delicate. They are stolen and can’t be used in legal procedures. Their content is still protected by [Swiss laws on] banking secrecy.”

In Britain, the Financial Conduct Authority has launched an informal investigation while HMRC has been in contact with the Serious Fraud Office over tax-dodging allegations.