Swiss banking whistleblower is spared prison

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The former Swiss banker who claims to have given WikiLeaks the names of companies, politicians and celebrities guilty of persistent tax evasion was ordered to pay a nominal fine equivalent to £4,600 yesterday after he was convicted of coercion and breaking bank secrecy laws at a trial in Zurich.

Rudolf Elmer, 55, the former head of the Cayman Islands offshore branch of Switzerland's Julius Baer Bank, was fined 7,200 Swiss francs after he admitted to passing on bank data and sending threatening letters to bank staff.

However, judges rejected Elmer's claims to be a "Robin Hood" of the Swiss banking world who was out to expose immoral practices. "You were part of the banking system for years and profited from it yourself," the judge told the court. "You acted against the bank because you were not promoted and had arguments with your superiors."

And the banker was last night arrested again by Swiss police, according to a Reuters report, on charges relating to the hand-over on Monday of data to WikiLeaks.

Elmer, who was sacked from the Cayman Islands branch in 2002, was found guilty by the court of coercion but acquitted of charges that he threatened to blow up the bank as part of a hoax. He justified his actions saying he was convinced the bank ordered him to be followed after he was sacked: "I was in an extreme situation. It was logical that I developed a defence strategy. We were very scared and I thought the bank was behind it," he said.

His court appearance took place two days after he handed bank CDs to the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, at a packed press conference in London, claiming that they contained the details of some 2,000 offshore accounts.

He said they belonged to as yet unnamed multinational companies, politicians, businessmen and celebrities. WikiLeaks has said it will publish the data as soon as it has been checked. "My vision is to educate people about how the offshore secrecy business works," Elmer told journalists.

Prosecution lawyers in Zurich yesterday tried to persuade judges to accept a sentence of eight months' imprisonment rather than an eight months suspended jail term in the light of Elmer's recent disclosures to WikiLeaks.

In 2005, Elmer threatened to disclose his secret bank information to tax authorities in Switzerland, the US and Britain. He turned to WikiLeaks in December 2007 and the material started being published the following month. Court action by Julius Baer in 2008 succeeded in shutting down the WikiLeaks website for two weeks. The case helped to focus attention on the whistle-blowing organisation.

Elmer's actions have provoked widespread controversy. Freedom of information campaigners claim that his whistle-blowing activities have helped to unmask a corrupt and unfair banking system. However, his former employers argue his motive is revenge for his 2002 sacking.

In a statement, the bank insisted that, in 2004, Mr Elmer "embarked on a personal intimidation campaign and vendetta against Julius Baer" after his demands for financial compensation for his sacking were not met. The bank claimed that he used falsified documents and issued death threats against its employees.

The bank also claimed that in 2004 Elmer sent senior management an email offering to hand over data in return for Sfr 50,000 and sent threatening faxes to bank employees.

It also accused Elmer of being behind a hoax bomb alert and of threatening to send the information to neo-Nazi groups.

For his part, Mr Elmer accused the bank of persecuting him and his family and of attempting to bribe him with a Sfr 500,000 payment into not exposing a widespread system of tax evasion by bank clients.