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Latest retreat by Swiss prosecutors in high profile money laundering case raises key administration of justice questions: are they up to the job?

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Swiss legal authorities have been forced into a climbdown over one of the country’s highest-profile money laundering cases, an investigation focused on the alleged theft of $176 million from Russia’s Otkritie bank, writes James Wilson.

It has been reported that the three defendants have been offered four and five month suspended sentences by prosecutors and a SFr3000 fine, in “ordinances” seen by the Financial Times. The newspaper also reported that this proposed settlement has been rejected by lawyers representing the individuals accused. The Financial Times noted that this is a significant reversal of approach by Swiss legal authorities, who had earlier sought prison sentences of up to five years in this nine-year investigation. According to Sam Jones of the Financial Times, the potential collapse “marks the latest blow to the reputation of Switzerland’s rule of law in complex financial cases”.

Otkritie's London lawyer, Neil Dooley of Steptoe and Johnson, said the Swiss prosecutor's offer was “astounding” and added: “Does the Swiss Ministry of Justice really want to send a signal to fraudsters and money launderers that they should bring their business to Switzerland, where they risk little more than a slap on the wrist and don’t have to disgorge stolen funds?”

A UK high court ruled in 2014 that the alleged theft of $173m from Otkritie was a “cunning and well-orchestrated fraud” driven by “blatant dishonesty . . . and simple greed”. A British criminal case followed and led to the group's ringleader, Georgy Urumov, a British resident, being sentenced to 12 years in prison. Sergey Kondratyuk, one of the five, pled guilty in 2013 and was sentenced to three years in prison. The four remaining — Ruslan Pinaev, his wife Marija Kovarska, Yevgeny Jemai and his mother Olessia Jemai — contested the Swiss case against them, however.

Swiss prosecutors are allowed to propose their own unilateral judgments on cases through ordinances if the sanction they attach is minor enough. Defendants then have ten days to accept or reject the ordinance. If rejected, the prosecutor must decide whether to undertake the lengthy process of pursuing the case further in court or drop the charges entirely. The Financial Times article also noted that in investigating the Otkritie fraud, Swiss authorities also declined early on to take any action against Swiss institutions embroiled in the case, such as the Swiss private bank Bordier & Cie. Bordier & Cie had facilitated a number of transactions before finally raising concerns with authorities only after Pinaev tried to close his account with the firm.

The ruling in the British fraud case’s 2014 high court judgment asserted that the bank initially took delivery of $120m allegedly connected to the London fraud from a Latvian bank, via a Panamanian shell company, without probing the superficial origin story given for the money. Bordier & Cie also later agreed at short notice to the withdrawal of $109m in cash by Urumov, Pinaev and Kondratyuk. The cash was immediately redeposited, via Bordier, in three separate entities . Bordier & Cie said the bank does not comment on proceedings in which it is not an involved party. “Bordier & Cie scrupulously respects all legal and regulatory obligations applicable to it”. Lawyers for Messrs Pinaev and Jemai and Ms Jemai said their clients have rejected the conclusions of the ordinances, and therefore remain innocent of any wrongdoing. They said they were ready to fight the case further in court should the prosecutor decide to proceed further.

The Financial Times reported Mr Pinaev's lawyer, Alexis Meleshko, as saying the case against his client was based on a simplified and one-sided reading of an “extremely complex” financial process that Swiss prosecutors had repeatedly failed to grasp. Mr Meleshko said he had never known a case to drag on for so long: “It is a ridiculous proceeding,” he said. Miguel Oural, Mr Jemai's lawyer, and Jean-Marc Carnicé, Ms Jemai's lawyer, said their clients had rejected the prosecutor’s ordinances.

“The Swiss justice system is in a bit of a crisis at the moment,” said Mark Pieth, professor of criminal law at the University of Basel, as quoted in the Financial Times. “It’s not the law itself. It’s the institutions — the prosecutors, the courts . . . are they up to their task?”

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Belgian artist's 'portable oasis' creates COVID-free bubble for one

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When governments around Europe told people to create a "bubble" to limit their social contacts during the COVID-19 pandemic, this was probably not what they had in mind, write Bart Biesemans and Clement Rossignol.

Alain Verschueren, a Belgian artist and social worker, has been strolling through the capital Brussels wearing a "portable oasis" - a plexiglass mini-greenhouse which rests on his shoulders, cocooning him in a bubble of air purified by the aromatic plants inside.

Verschueren, 61, developed the idea 15 years ago, inspired by the lush oases in Tunisia where he had previously worked. In a city where face coverings are mandatory to curb the spread of COVID-19, his invention has gained a new lease of life.

"It was about creating a bubble in which I could lock myself in, to cut myself off a world that I found too dull, too noisy or smelly," Verschueren said, adding that he has asthma and finds breathing within his contraption more comfortable than wearing a facemask.

Belgian artist Alain Verschueren wears his "Portable Oasis" while performing in a street, saying he wanted to be in his bubble in the middle of the city, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brussels, Belgium April 16, 2021. Picture taken April 16, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Belgian artist Alain Verschueren wears his "Portable Oasis" while performing in a street, saying he wanted to be in his bubble in the middle of the city, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brussels, Belgium April 16, 2021. Picture taken April 16, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Belgian artist Alain Verschueren wears his "Portable Oasis" while performing in a street, saying he wanted to be in his bubble in the middle of the city, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brussels, Belgium 16 April. REUTERS/Yves Herman

"As time went by, I noticed that people were coming up to me and talking to me. This isolation became much more a way of connecting," he said.

Onlookers in Brussels appeared amused and confused by the man wandering between the shops - mostly closed due to COVID-19 restrictions - encased in a pod of thyme, rosemary and lavender plants.

"Is it a greenhouse? Is it for the bees? Is it for the plants? We don't know, but it's a good idea," Charlie Elkiess, a retired jeweller, told Reuters.

Verschueren said he hoped to encourage people to take better care of the environment, to reduce the need to protect ourselves from air and noise pollution.

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Indo-Pacific: Council adopts conclusions on EU strategy for co-operation

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The Council approved conclusions on an EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, setting out the EU’s intention to reinforce its strategic focus, presence and actions in this region of prime strategic importance for EU interests. The aim is to contribute to regional stability, security, prosperity and sustainable development, at a time of rising challenges and tensions in the region.

The renewed EU commitment to the Indo-Pacific, a region spanning from the east coast of Africa to the Pacific island states, will have a long-term focus and will be based on upholding democracy, human rights, the rule of law and respect for international law.

Current dynamics in the Indo-Pacific have given rise to intense geopolitical competition adding to increasing tensions on trade and supply chains as well as in technological, political and security areas. Human rights are also being challenged. These developments increasingly threaten the stability and security of the region and beyond, directly impacting on the EU’s interests.

Consequently, the EU’s approach and engagement will look to foster a rules-based international order, a level playing field, as well as an open and fair environment for trade and investment, reciprocity, the strengthening of resilience, tackling climate change and supporting connectivity with the EU. Free and open maritime supply routes in full compliance with international law remain crucial. The EU will look to work together with its partners in the Indo-Pacific on these issues of common interest.  

The EU will continue to develop partnerships in the areas of security and defence, including to address maritime security, malicious cyber activities, disinformation, emerging technologies, terrorism, and organized crime.

The EU and its regional partners will also work together in order to mitigate the economic and human effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and work towards ensuring an inclusive and sustainable socio-economic recovery.

The Council tasked the High Representative and the Commission with putting forward a Joint Communication on co-operation in the Indo-Pacific by September 2021.

The conclusions were adopted by the Council by written procedure.

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Conference on the Future of Europe: Make your voice heard

EU Reporter Correspondent

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Share your views on the EU, organize events across Europe and discuss with others through the new digital platform on the Conference on the Future of Europe, EU affairs.

Launched on 19 April, the platform is the multilingual hub of the Conference on the Future of Europe that will allow people to get involved and suggest what changes need to take place in the EU. Europeans will also be able to see what others propose, comment on them and endorse ideas.

The EU institutions have committed to listening to what people say and to following up on the recommendations made. The Conference is expected to reach conclusions by the spring of 2022.

How do you take part?

Choose a topic that interests you. It could be anything from climate change to digital issues or EU democracy. If you don’t see a category with your topic, share your opinion in the Other Ideas category.

Once you are in a specific category, you can read the introduction and explore some useful links. On the Ideas tab, you can share your views and find the ideas of others. Join the discussion by leaving a comment, or vote for ideas you like so that more people can find them.

You can submit your comment in any of the EU's official 24 languages. All comments can be translated automatically in any of the other languages.

Under the Events tab, you can explore events organised online or near you, register for an event or prepare your own.

The platform fully respects users’ privacy and EU data protection rules.

What happens when you submit an opinion?

The submitted opinions and the debate they initiate will be the basis for discussions in citizens’ panels that will be organised across the EU at regional, national and European level. These panels will include people from different backgrounds so that they can be representative of the whole population of the EU.

The conclusions of the different panels will be then presented at a plenary session of the Conference, which will bring together citizens, representatives of EU institutions and national parliaments.

Join the discussion on social media about the Conference with the hashtag #TheFutureIsYours.

Conference on the Future of Europe 

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