Switzerland claims embassy worker was abducted by Sri Lankan security officers

Swiss embassy Sri LankaSwitzerland has filed a formal complaint after an employee of the Swiss embassy in Sri Lanka was allegedly abducted by men who forced her to divulge sensitive information about the embassy and its activities. The Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Tuesday that the embassy employee was kidnapped by four men while walking in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, on November 25. The men took her to what appeared to be a safe house and interrogated her for several hours.

The men eventually forced the Swiss embassy employee, who is a Sri Lankan national, to unlock her personal cell phone. According to Swiss government officials, they appeared to be looking for information about a senior Sri Lankan police detective who recently fled to Switzerland with his family and was granted political asylum. Some Sri Lankan media identified the man as Nishantha Silva, a police detective who until recently headed the Sri Lankan Criminal Intelligence Division’s Organized Crime Investigation Unit.

Silva is one of hundreds of members of Sri Lanka’s public sector who have fled abroad following the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last month. The Rajapaksa family is one of the most powerful in the country, and has a long history of influencing Sri Lankan politics. Hours after assuming power, the ultra-nationalist Rajapaksa pledged to “hunt down” the leadership of the police and security services who investigated his family after 2015, when the Rajapaksas were ousted from the government. Hundreds of police and security officers have since been arrested or summarily fired.

On Tuesday, a Swiss Foreign Ministry spokesman told The New York Times that the Swiss government had verified the details of the abduction of its embassy worker. The spokesman added that the employee was forced to disclose “embassy-related information” after she was “threatened at length” by the men. The latter released her after warning her that she would be killed if she spoke to anyone about her ordeal.

On Monday, a spokesman for President Rajapaksa told reporters in Colombo that the Sri Lankan government questioned the accuracy of the Swiss embassy worker’s account of her abduction. Later, however, the Sri Lankan government announced that it had launched an investigation into the allegations. It now appears that the Sri Lankan government is preventing the embassy worker from leaving the country while the investigation into her claims is underway.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 December 2019 | Permalink

Espionage scandal prompts resignations of top Swiss banking executives

Credit SuisseTwo senior executives of Credit Suisse, one of the world’s most powerful banking firms, have resigned amidst a high-stakes espionage scandal that may have prompted a suicide and has shocked Switzerland. The alleged target of the espionage is Iqbal Khan, the former Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Credit Suisse’s wealth-management division. The 43-year-old Khan moved to Switzerland from his native Pakistan at the age of 12. In 2013, after working for more than a decade as an auditor at Ernst & Young, he joined Credit Suisse. He quickly rose to head the institution’s wealth-management division and was credited with having nearly doubled its profits between 2016 and 2018.

Khan’s meteoric success brought him immense financial wealth. He soon bought a piece of property that is adjacent to the home of Tidjane Thiam, the 57-year-old CEO of Credit Suisse. Khan and his wife had the house on their property demolished and began a two-year project to build a new house. But the disruption caused by the large-scale construction project gave rise to a dispute between Thiam and Khan. Their rivalry escalated quickly and prompted the intervention of Credit Suisse board chairman Urs Rohner. However, the dispute between the two men was not resolved, and on July 1 of this year Khan left Credit Suisse. On August 29, Credit Suisse’s rival UBS announced that Khan would co-lead its global wealth management division.

It appears that some Credit Suisse executives were concerned that Khan might try to attract their firm’s customers to his new UBS portfolio. These concerns allegedly prompted Credit Suisse’s Chief Operating Officer (COO), Pierre-Olivier Bouee, to instruct the bank’s security department to keep tabs on Khan. The bank reportedly hired a private investigation firm, Investigo, to monitor Khan’s movements. There was an unexpected turn on September 17, when Khan noticed that he was being followed and promptly confronted an Investigo employee in downtown Zurich. On the same day, the former Credit Suisse star manager filed a complaint with the Zurich office of the Swiss Public Prosecutor.

On September 18, Credit Suisse gave orders to Investigo to stop keeping tabs on Khan. It also launched an internal investigation to evaluate the merits of the decision to spy on Khan. Meanwhile, the Swiss Public Prosecutor’s office announced that it had opened a criminal case on Investigo and had arrested three individuals in connection with the case. On September 24, a private investigator, who is believed to have been involved in Khan’s case, committed suicide. Media reports said the unidentified man was “an external security expert” who mediated between Credit Suisse and Investigo.

On Tuesday, Credit Suisse COO Bouee announced his resignation. Swiss media said the head of the bank’s global security division also resigned. Also on Tuesday, Credit Suisse’s internal investigation found that CEO Thiam had not been involved in the decision to spy on Khan.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 October 2019 | Permalink

Swiss to extradite brother of ‘leading biochemist’ who spied for Chinese firm

GlaxoSmithKlineA Swiss court has ordered the extradition to the United States of the brother of one of the world’s leading biochemists, who spied on a British pharmaceutical firm to help a Chinese startup. The extradition is part of a large corporate espionage case centered on Yu Xue, a Chinese scientist described by US federal prosecutors as “one of the world’s top protein biochemists”. Yu specializes in drug research for cancer and other serious terminal illnesses. From 2006 until 2016 he worked in the US for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a leading British pharmaceutical group.

In 2018, Yu was arrested by US authorities for stealing trade secrets from a GSK research facility in the US state of Pennsylvania, and giving them to a Chinese startup pharmaceutical company called Renopharma. He eventually pleaded guilty to stealing proprietary data from GSK, in a case that the US Department of Justice described as a textbook example of Chinese “economic warfare” against America. US government prosecutors also claim that Renopharma is almost wholly funded the Chinese government. The three co-founders of the Chinese firm have also been charged with corporate espionage targeting a US firm.

On May 28 Yu’s brother, Gongda Xue, was arrested in Basel, Switzerland. According to the US government, Gongda used GSK data stolen by his brother to carry out drug experimentation at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research, where he worked as a post-doctoral trainee between 2008 and 2014. On Tuesday, the Swiss Federal Office of Justice (FOJ), ruled in favor of a request by the US government to extradite Gongda so he can be tried in Pennsylvaia. According to the FOJ, the Chinese scientist will be extradited as soon as his 30-day appeal period expires.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 17 July 2019 | Permalink

Russian espionage reaching ‘intolerable levels’ say Swiss officials

Jean-Philippe GaudinRussian espionage activities in Switzerland are increasing and are crossing long-established “red lines”, according to senior Swiss defense and intelligence officials who spoke at a news conference last week. The claims were made by Guy Parmelin, head of Switzerland’s Federal Department of Defense, and Jean-Philippe Gaudin, director of the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service (NDB). The two men spoke on Friday before reporters in Bern. Following the news conference, Gaudin spoke with reporters from the Reuters news agency.

Gaudin, who assumed the post of NDB director three months ago, told Reuters that Russian espionage activities in Switzerland have been increasing steadily in recent years. He refused to provide details, but said that “it is clear we have more activities than before”. Additionally, Moscow had more active spies in Switzerland than in previous years, said Gaudin. He refused to provide numbers, saying that he would “share that with [his] colleagues elsewhere and not with the media”. The NDB chief noted that Switzerland had always been a target of Soviet and Russian espionage because it hosts the headquarters of a large number of international and non-governmental organizations. However, what is different today, he said, is that Moscow is targeting Switzerland’s “sensitive infrastructure”, which is “a red line”. He did not provide further information. Speaking alongside Gaudin, Defense Minister Parmelin said that Russian espionage activities against Swiss national infrastructure “has reached intolerable levels”.

These allegations by senior Swiss government officials come a little more than a month after reports that Swiss and other Western intelligence agencies thwarted a plot by two Russians who tried to hack the computer systems of a Swiss government laboratory that investigates nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. The laboratory, located in the western Swiss city of Spiez, had been commissioned by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to carry out investigations related to the poisoning of Russian double agent //Sergei Skripal// and his daughter Yulia in March of this year. It has also carried out probes on the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Russian-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

The Russian embassy in Bern rejected the accusations of espionage and called the allegations made by Gaudin, and Parmelin “absurd”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 October 2018 | Permalink

Swiss police saw Russian oligarch Abramovich as threat to security, files reveal

Roman AbramovichPolice in Switzerland cautioned that allowing the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich to live there would threaten public security and damage the country’s reputation, according to files released this week. The Soviet-born Abramovich took advantage of Russia’s privatization laws in the early 1990s to gain considerable financial and political influence there. His friendship with Russia’s first post-Soviet President, Boris Yeltsin, was instrumental in his business career, and eventually placed him in close proximity to Russia’s current President, Vladimir Putin. Unlike many other oligarchs, Abramovich is believed to have remained close to Putin, despite living mostly in the United Kingdom in the past decade. The Russian oligarch has been staying in a mansion valued at close to $120 million in London’s exclusive suburb of Kensington. His lawyers have been renewing his British residence visa every six months.

However, the attempted assassination of Russian former spy Sergei Skripal earlier this year prompted the British government to intensify its scrutiny of Britain’s sizeable Russian expatriate community. London introduced tighter regulations that require Russian citizens applying to live in the UK to declare the source of their income in a far greater detail than previously. Soon after the new regulations were put in place, Abramovich’s lawyers withdrew his application to renew his British residency visa. Then, in May of this year, the Russian oligarch acquired Israeli citizenship. He has made it clear, however, that he does not intend to live in Israel. Instead, his legal team focused on an application for Swiss residency, which Abramovich first filed in the summer of 2016. In the application papers, Abramovich wrote that he intended to reside full time in Verbier, an Alpine village in the canton of Valais that is a popular holiday destination for celebrities and royalty.

A year later, following resistance and increasingly persistent questioning from the Swiss government, Abramovich’s legal team withdrew his residency application. Last February, when the Swiss press attempted to investigate the reasons behind the Swiss government’s reluctance, Abramovich’s lawyers secured an injunction forbidding the publication of information regarding his application to live in Switzerland. But the injunction was overturned late last week, and on Tuesday the Swiss media conglomerate Tamedia published some of the relevant documents. They include a letter from the Swiss Federal Police that strongly cautions against allowing the Russian-Israeli oligarch to resettle in Switzerland. The letter remarks that Abramovich has been repeatedly implicated in “suspicion of money laundering” and that the billionaire is “presumed [to have] contacts with criminal organizations”. Additionally, the letter states that Abramovich’s “assets are at least in part of illegal origin”. The letter concludes by strongly cautioning against allowing the oligarch to move to Switzerland, and argues that doing so would pose a “threat to public security” and be detrimental to the country’s international reputation.

The letter has raised eyebrows since its publication, because Switzerland is known for being highly welcoming of foreign billionaires while displaying minimal curiosity about the sources of their fortunes. Moreover, there are no known court rulings against Abramovich for money laundering or connections to organized crime. It is therefore presumed that the Swiss police report is based mostly on confidential informants and other informal sources. On Wednesday, Abramovich’s Swiss lawyer, Daniel Glasl, issued a statement saying that the Russian-Israeli magnate has never been charged with involvement in money laundering. He also reminded readers that his client has a blank criminal record.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 September 2018 | Permalink

Western spy agencies thwarted alleged Russian plot to hack Swiss chemical lab

OPCW HagueWestern intelligence agencies thwarted a plot involving two Russians intending to travel to a Swiss government laboratory that investigates nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and hack its computer systems. According to two separate reports by Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, the two were apprehended in The Hague in early 2018. The reports also said that the Russians were found in possession of equipment that could be used to compromise computer networks. They are believed to work for the Main Intelligence Directorate, known as GRU, Russia’s foremost military intelligence agency. The apprehension was the result of cooperation between various European intelligence services, reportedly including the Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Organization (MIVD).

The laboratory, located in the western Swiss city of Spiez, has been commissioned by the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to carry out investigations related to the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March of this year. It has also carried out probes on the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Russian-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In the case of the Skripals, the laboratory said it was able to duplicate findings made earlier by a British laboratory.

Switzerland’s Federal Intelligence Service (NDB) reportedly confirmed the arrest and subsequent expulsion of the two Russians. The Swiss agency said it “cooperated actively with Dutch and British partners” and thus “contributed to preventing illegal actions against a sensitive Swiss infrastructure”. The office of the Public Prosecutor in the Swiss capital Bern said that the two Russians had been the subject of a criminal investigation that began as early as March 2017. They were allegedly suspected of hacking the computer network of the regional office of the World Anti-Doping Agency in Lausanne. The Spiez laboratory was a target of hacking attempts earlier this year, according to a laboratory spokesperson. “We defended ourselves against that. No data was lost”, the spokesperson stated.

On April 14, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov stated that he had obtained the confidential Spiez lab report about the Skripal case “from a confidential source”. That report confirmed earlier findings made by a British laboratory. But the OPCW, of which Russia is a member, states that its protocols do not involve dissemination of scientific reports to OPCW member states. Hence, the question is how Foreign Minister Lavrov got hold of the document.

As intelNews reported in March, in the aftermath of the Skripals’ poisoning the Dutch government expelled two employees of the Russian embassy in The Hague. In a letter [.pdf] sent to the Dutch parliament on March 26 —the day when a large number of countries announced punitive measures against Russia— Holland’s foreign and internal affairs ministers stated that they had decided to expel the two Russian diplomats “in close consultation with allies and partners”. The Russians were ordered to leave the Netherlands within two weeks. It is unknown whether the two expelled Russian diplomats are the same two who were apprehended in The Hague, since none have been publicly named.

A November 2017 parliamentary letter from Dutch minister of internal affairs Kajsa Ollongren, states[4] that Russian intelligence officers are “structurally present” in the Netherlands in various sectors of society to covertly collect intelligence. The letter added that, in addition to traditional human intelligence (HUMINT) methods, Russia deploys digital means to influence decision-making processes and public opinion in Holland.

Author: Matthijs Koot | Date: 17 September 2018 | Permalink

Germany drops espionage case against senior Swiss intelligence official

Paul ZinnikerGermany has dropped a criminal case against the second-in-command of Switzerland’s intelligence agency, who was accused by Berlin of authorizing an espionage operation against the German tax collection service. A year ago, Germany launched an unprecedented investigation into three senior officials of Switzerland’s intelligence agency, the Federal Intelligence Service (NDB). The probe was launched on suspicion that the Swiss officials masterminded a spy operation against German tax investigators who were probing the activities of Swiss banks. The German probe was launched three months after authorities in Germany arrested a Swiss intelligence officer, identified only as “Daniel M.”, for engaging in espionage on German soil.

The German government believes that billions of euros have been deposited by its citizens in banking institutions in European tax-havens like Liechtenstein, Switzerland or Monaco. For the past decade, German authorities have resorted to bribing whistleblowers in offshore banks in order to acquire internal documents that reveal the identities of German citizens who are hiding their money in foreign bank accounts. It is estimated that over a hundred million dollars have been paid to whistleblowers by German authorities since 2006. The latter argue that the proceeds collected from unpaid taxes and fines more than justify the payments made out to whistleblowers. But the Swiss government has strongly criticized Berlin for encouraging Swiss banking sector employees to steal internal corporate information that often breaks Switzerland’s stringent privacy laws. It is believed that the NDB has been instructed by the Swiss government to monitor efforts by German tax-fraud investigators to approach potential whistleblowers working in the Swiss banking sector.

The man identified as “Daniel M.” appears to be one of several Swiss spies who have been collecting information on the activities of German tax investigators. For a while it appeared that German counterintelligence officials were intent on targeting Paul Zinniker (pictured), Deputy Director of the NDB. They claimed that Zinniker was the main support officer of the operation that “Daniel M.” was participating in when he was arrested in Germany in 2017. According to the Germans, it was Zinniker’s who conceived the operation in 2011. But on Monday a spokesman for Germany’s federal prosecutor told the Swiss News Agency that Berlin dropped the case against Zinniker back in June. The revelation came less than 48 hours after a report in the Sunday edition of the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung claimed that the charges against Zinniker would be dropped. According to the German federal prosecutor’s office, the case against the Swiss spy official was dropped because of the lack of cooperation by Swiss authorities, which made it impossible to prove that Zinniker was indeed the mastermind of the espionage operation against Berlin.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 September 2018 | Permalink