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The Boston Globe

Business

Switzerland eases bank privacy law

NEW YORK — The Swiss government said Wednesday that it will allow its banks to disclose information on US clients with hidden accounts, a watershed move intended to help resolve a long-running dispute with the United States over tax evasion.

The decision, which comes amid widening scrutiny in Europe of tax havens, is a turning point in what has been an escalating conflict between Switzerland and the United States.

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Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, Switzerland’s finance minister, said the move would enable Swiss banks to accept an offer by the US government to hand over broad client details and pay fines in exchange for a promise by US authorities not to indict any bank.

Disclosure of actual client names and account data, which US authorities have been aggressively seeking, would take place under a taxation treaty between the two countries that the US side has not yet ratified. Banks under criminal scrutiny that agree to cooperate with the decision could still face deferred-prosecution or nonprosecution agreements, a lesser punishment than indictment.

Widmer-Schlumpf said the Swiss government would not make any payments as part of the agreement. Sources briefed on the matter say the total fines could eventually total $7 billion to $10 billion, and that to ease any financial pressure on the banks, the Swiss government might advance the sums and then seek reimbursement.

“It is important for us to be able to let the past be the past,” Widmer-Schlumpf said at a press briefing in Bern, Switzerland. She declined to give any details about the program, but said banks would have one year to decide whether to accept the US offer.

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