Four former executives of the Zurich-based Gazprombank in Russia are currently on trial in Switzerland.
The three Russians and one Swiss are charged with assisting Russian singer Sergei Roldugin launder monies suspected of belonging to Russia’s president.
Between 2014 and 2016, Mr. Roldugin allegedly transferred $50 million (£42 million) to Swiss accounts without offering a convincing justification for the move.
He identified himself at the time as a cellist with a small income.
Despite his fame as a musician, he didn’t make a lot of money. He once admitted to the New York Times that he was neither a millionaire nor a successful businessman.
But from whence did he obtain the millions of dollars that he deposited in Swiss bank accounts?
According to Zurich’s prosecutors, this is the query the alleged former bankers ought to have raised. The cellist’s friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin was well known, and there are even rumors that he may be the godfather of Mr. Putin’s daughter.
If a bank has any reservations about the account holder or the source of the funds, they are compelled by Swiss law to refuse or close the account.
Also, they must handle “politically exposed persons” with the utmost caution. Sergei Roldugin, a well-known ally of the Russian president, should have raised red flags when he invested millions in Switzerland following Russia’s unlawful annexation of Crimea and the ensuing sanctions in 2014. The prosecution will assert that did not occur.
The case is being viewed as a test of how strictly Switzerland implements its anti-money laundering regulations, which are at least extremely severe on paper.
The image of Switzerland as a nation where even the dirtiest money from the most brutalist dictator or most corrupt billionaire can be washed whiter than white has been actively fought against by Swiss authorities in recent years.
Journalists, including a team from BBC Panorama, who were involved in a global inquiry into the Panama Papers data leak conducted by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 2016 were the ones who first made public Mr. Roldugin’s dubious wealth.
In addition to Mr. Roldugin’s Swiss bank accounts, they found evidence of questionable activities involving his offshore companies worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Swiss prosecutors didn’t start their own inquiry until that proof surfaced. Their current charge, which is being heard in Zurich, alleges that the musician served as “Putin’s pocketbook,” transferring money to Gazprombank in Zurich through phony businesses in Cyprus and Panama.
The four defendants are accused of breaching the “due diligence” requirement by failing to investigate, or by turning a blind eye to, the genuine source of the defendant’s funds. They all entered a not-guilty plea.
Since then, Sergei Roldugin’s name has appeared on the Swiss sanctions list, and Gazprombank has ceased operations in Switzerland.
Yet, the four bankers would only be subject to light, suspended sentences of up to seven months. Prosecutors will need to persuade the jury that Vladimir Putin actually owned the Roldugin millions in order to obtain a guilty conviction at all.
Not an easy assignment now that the customary state-to-state cooperation on money laundering investigations is not taking place, in this case between Switzerland and Russia.
Nobody is really aware of the true wealth of President Putin and those who are close to him. The Swiss indictment notes that his claimed salary is only a little over $100,000 (£84,400).
But, there are rumors that his riches, neatly hidden away in a maze of shell companies and the accounts of associates like Sergei Roldugin, could be worth an astounding $125 billion (£105 billion).
Due to this, a guilty decision may have a big impact despite the light punishments. It would convey to the financial experts who have handled their funds that their money can no longer be as easily disguised as it once was, as well as to the president of Russia, his friends, and the rest of his political apparatus.
According to Tom Keatinge, director of the Royal United Services Institute’s Centre for Financial Crime and Security Research, “Roldugin is not alone in his claimed role as one of ‘Putin’s wallets.
The authorities are clearly motivated to present their case in court, so those banks and law firms serving other close associates of Vladimir Putin should be put on notice.