GENEVA (AFP) - Secret documents published online alleging banking giant HSBC helped wealthy customers dodge millions of dollars in taxes caused global shockwaves on Monday and spotlighted the financial dealings of the world's ultra-rich.
The cache of files made public in the so-called SwissLeaks case included the names of celebrities, alleged arms dealers and politicians - though inclusion on the list does not necessarily imply wrongdoing.
The documents published at the weekend claim the London-based bank's Swiss division helped clients in more than 200 countries evade taxes on accounts containing US$119 billion (S$161 billion).
The huge cache of files from Europe's biggest bank was stolen by an IT worker in 2007 and passed to French authorities, but had not been previously made public.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) obtained the files via French newspaper Le Monde and shared them with more than 45 other media organisations worldwide.
The documents showed that HSBC opened Swiss accounts for international criminals, businessmen, politicians and celebrities, according to the ICIJ.
The revelations renewed calls for a crackdown on sophisticated tax avoidance by the wealthy and multinational companies. Tax avoidance is legal, but tax evasion is not.
"HSBC profited from doing business with arms dealers who channelled mortar bombs to child soldiers in Africa, bag men for Third World dictators, traffickers in blood diamonds and other international outlaws," ICIJ reported.
A range of current and former politicians from Russia, India and various African countries, as well as Saudi, Bahraini, Jordanian and Moroccan royalty, and the late Australian press magnate Kerry Packer were named in the files.
Following the bombshell disclosure, there were calls for a Swiss probe against the bank, which is already facing prosecution in France and Belgium.
"I am angry," former Swiss foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey told public broadcaster RTS.
Global fallout on Monday included a Belgian judge said to be considering international arrest warrants for directors of HSBC's Swiss division, while in Britain a political row was triggered, with the main parties blaming each other for not taking action.
Shares in HSBC, whose reputation has been tarnished in recent years by a string of high-profile controversies, were down 1.64 per cent to 610.60 pence at the close of trading in London.
So far Switzerland has only launched an investigation against HSBC employee-turned-whistleblower Herve Falciani, who stole the files at the heart of the scandal.
The files were used by the French government to track down tax evaders and shared with other states in 2010, leading to a series of prosecutions.
British tax authorities said Monday they had brought in more than £135 million (S$278 million) on the basis of the files.
HSBC's Swiss banking arm insisted it has since undergone a "radical transformation".
"HSBC's Swiss Private Bank began a radical transformation in 2008 to prevent its services from being used to evade taxes or launder money," Franco Morra, the head of HSBC's Swiss unit, told AFP in an email.
He said the bank had closed the accounts of clients "who did not meet our high standards" and had "strong compliance controls in place," adding that the disclosures were "a reminder that the old business model of Swiss private banking is no longer acceptable."
The Swiss Banking Association said the country's banks had worked hard in recent years to clean up shop and ensure conformity with tax laws.
French Finance Minister Michel Sapin demanded Monday that no mercy be shown to the bank or its tax-cheating clients.
Notes in the leaked files indicate HSBC workers were aware of clients' intentions to keep money hidden from national authorities.
Of one Danish account holder collecting cash bundles of kroner, an employee wrote: "All contacts through one of her 3 daughters living in London. Account holder living in Denmark, ie critical as it is a criminal act having an account abroad non declared."
The files provide details on over 100,000 HSBC clients, including people targeted by US sanctions, such as Turkish businessman Selim Alguadis and Gennady Timchenko, an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Alguadis told the ICIJ it was prudent to keep savings offshore, while a spokesman for Timchenko said he was fully compliant with tax matters.
Other individuals named on the list include Rami Makhlouf, cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, designer Diane von Furstenberg, who told the ICIJ the accounts were inherited from her parents, and model Elle Macpherson, whose lawyers told the ICIJ she was fully in compliance with UK tax law.
Motorcycle racer Valentino Rossi, listed as having US$23.9 million (S$32.3 million) in two accounts, said he had regularised his tax situation with Italian authorities.