A Spanish judge yesterday freed Herve Falciani, a former HSBC computer analyst detained in Madrid on Wednesday at the request of Switzerland for leaking documents alleging widespread tax evasion, on bail, a judicial source said.
The High Court of Justice in Madrid seized Falciani’s passport and ordered the 46-year-old French-Italian national to report weekly to a court while his extradition request is considered, the source added.
The High Court prosecutor had earlier asked the judge to bar Falciani from leaving Spain before the extradition ruling was delivered.
The prosecutor said in a statement the recommendation to detain him or “take cautionary measures” was made due to the complexity of the case and because it believed Falciani was a flight risk, which had not previously been the case.
“He was arrested in Madrid, in the street on the way to a conference,” a top police official told reporters on Wednesday.
However, the official did not say why Falciani was wanted by Switzerland.
A Swiss court in 2015 convicted Falciani of aggravated industrial espionage and handed him a five-year prison sentence. He did not attend his trial and has avoided Switzerland since.
Falciani leaked a cache of documents allegedly indicating that HSBC’s Swiss private banking arm helped more than 120,000 clients to hide 180.6 billion euros (US$221.4 billion at the current exchange rate) from tax authorities, sparking the so-called “Swissleaks” scandal.
While he is widely viewed as a whistle-blower and hailed as a hero in countries where his leaked information is helping catch tax cheats, Swiss authorities prosecuted him for data theft, industrial espionage and violating the country’s long-cherished banking secrecy laws.
“It is very regrettable that he was arrested, we don’t understand it,” said Carlos Cruzado, president of Gestha, the Spanish tax inspectors’ union, adding that he witnessed Falciani’s detention as he arrived at a university to speak at a conference.
“The paradox is that he was detained at the entrance to a debate on the need to protect whistle-blowers and his chair was left empty,” Cruzado said. “We were going to debate the fact that Spain is one of the European countries where fewer measures have been implemented to protect whistle-blowers.”
Falciani became an IT worker for HSBC in 2000 and moved to the bank’s offices in Geneva in 2006. The so-called “Snowden of tax evasion” and “the man who terrifies the rich” then obtained access to a massive database of encrypted customer information.
He took the client list in 2007 and went to Lebanon with his mistress the next year, planning to sell the data.
Swiss authorities described it as “cashing in,” yet suspicious bankers in Lebanon were not interested in buying the dubiously sourced client list and at least one tipped off their Swiss counterparts to Falciani’s activities.
Falciani then got in contact with European fiscal authorities and began passing them the pilfered information, which subsequently led to the prosecution of tax evaders including Arlette Ricci, heir to France’s Nina Ricci perfume empire, and the pursuit of Emilio Botin, the late chairman of Banco Santander SA in Spain.
Falciani has denied that he was only seeking financial gain, insisting he had wanted to expose how banks support tax evasion and money laundering.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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