Bern (Switzerland), Aug 24: Thousands of so-called "politically exposed persons", or PEPs -- a category that includes heads of state and other top officials -- hold Swiss bank accounts, a Swiss foreign ministry official said today.
Swiss authorities estimate that "there are thousands of PEPs (with accounts) in Switzerland, not hundreds," Valentin Zellweger, who heads the ministry's Directorate of International Law, told reporters.
Switzerland has repeatedly been embarrassed by revelations, splashed across front pages worldwide, of global political heavyweights hiding funds -- sometimes embezzled from public coffers -- in the Alpine nation's famous banks.
But the country has not taken such scandals sitting down: it has been freezing suspicious assets for a quarter century. By the end of this year, Bern aims to finalise a law aimed at simplifying the process of freezing and unblocking such funds.
In total, Switzerland has since 2003 returned a total of around USD 1.8 billion embezzled by Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, the late Nigerian military dictator Sani Abacha, former Peruvian spy chief Vladimir Montesinos, Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti and others.
That is more than any other country has returned and represents a quarter of the USD 4-5 billion in assets restituted globally, Swiss authorities said last year.
The country has meanwhile recently seized around USD 400 million in connection with a massive corruption probe targeting Brazil's state oil company Petrobras.
Zellweger insisted Switzerland is trying to be "transparent" in its handling of the Petrobas scandal, which involves top executives accused of colluding with construction companies to inflate contracts and bribe politicians.
The Swiss opened their own inquiry into Petrobras in April last year, with authorities vowing to crack down on the large number of suspicious transactions believed to be linked to the case that had moved through the country's banks. Switzerland's attorney general has said the suspected corrupt payments had passed through more than 30 Swiss banks.
This marks a hard blow to the Swiss banking sector, which for years has been striving to clean up its image and crack down hard on money laundering.
"We have to do better," Zellweger acknowledged, stressing though that Switzerland was the only international banking hub that had provided information about Petrobas-linked transactions. He said banks in other countries had handled much bigger sums linked to the corruption case, but that those countries were keeping mum.