India has strongly objected to Switzerland's denial of information about account details of certain Indians at HSBC's Swiss bank branches, in whose cases "incriminating evidence of tax evasion" have been found here.
In a strongly-worded letter to his Swiss counterpart, Finance Minister P Chidambaram has also warned that an effective exchange of tax-related information was "extremely important" for economic co-operation between the two countries and Switzerland must honour its "rights and duties" agreed to in their bilateral Direct Tax Avoidance Convention (DTAC).
This is Chidambaram's third letter to Swiss Finance Minister Eveline Widmer Schlumpf within four months on this matter and he again reiterated that India would continue to take a position at the Global Forum about Switzerland lacking legal and regulatory framework for an effective exchange of information.
Chidambaram also said that the interpretation made by Switzerland that it can not share information as per India's request was not in accordance with international standards.
Switzerland communicated its decision against sharing the information through a letter dated April 7 to Chidambaram, pursuant to which India has now stepped up its pressure on the European nation, which has been long perceived as a major safe haven for alleged black money stashed by Indians and other foreign nationals due to its strong banking secrecy laws.
Under global pressure, Switzerland has agreed to ease its banking secrecy laws in recent years and it also signed a revised tax treaty with India in 2011 to facilitate greater flow of information about alleged black money.
However, it has refused to share information with India about the accounts mentioned in the so-called 'HSBC list' which India had received from France through a bilateral treaty.
However, it has been widely reported that France had received that list after data was stolen by a disgruntled HSBC employee in 2011 and those names eventually found their way to tax authorities across the world including India.
The Finance Minister further said Switzerland was putting unusual pre-conditions for sharing information which appear to be "intended to refuse assistance" and such refusal amounts to Swiss authorities providing protection to the people "found to have evaded Indian taxes".
Switzerland has rejected India's request on the pretext that the information was being sought on the basis of stolen data and it claims that its local laws do not permit exchange of information in such cases where some criminality may be involved for getting the data.
Countering Switzerland's claims, Chidambaram said that India's request "is based on data obtained legally under a DTAC with a third country and India is not party to commission of any criminal offence in Switzerland in this regard".
Earlier this year, a Swiss delegation had come to India to discuss such cases, but not much headway could be made.
Referring to that visit, Chidambaram said he had hoped "Swiss delegation would be willing to consider options that would enable exchange of information even in the HSBC cases.
"For instance, it was demonstrated to the Swiss delegation that in several of these cases, the Indian tax authorities had gathered incriminating evidence of tax evasion through their own investigation and actions. Accordingly, it was suggested by the Indian side that the information requests should be considered independently of the stolen data issue.
"However, Swiss delegates insisted on a pre-condition that India needs to demonstrate that the investigation carried out in these cases was initiated independently of the HSBC data and was based on information already available with the Indian authorities prior to receiving the HSBC data from France." Chidambaram said he was aware of Switzerland government's failure to modify its laws due to political opposition there.
Switzerland's envoy to India Linus von Castelmur had also said here yesterday that there was a kind of "national resistance" in his country against giving information in cases of black money which have been sourced from 'stolen data'.
Chidambaram said "the refusal to provide assistance in cases where evidence has been collected by the Indian tax authorities, for the reason that the names of the persons concerned existed in the HSBC bank data, amounts to Switzerland providing protection to taxpayers found to have evaded Indian taxes".
Besides, such refusal "seriously undermines India's efforts in tackling offshore tax evasion and stashing of unaccounted income abroad," he said.
In his letter, Chidambaram, however, lauded approval by Swiss Parliament to a legislative amendment that provides for exceptions to the requirement of prior notification of the account holder in cases of information-exchange.
This amended legislation would come into force in July after which information can be exchanged with India or other countries in certain cases without informing the concerned bank customers.
"Regarding waiver of the conditions stated by India of not notifying the account holders in certain non-HSBC cases, the Indian competent authorities will shortly inform your official side of the cases where such waiver can be made," Chidambaram wrote.
He also requested that such notification requirements should not unduly delay the exchange of information.
Chidambaram said he was conscious of the long-standing ties of friendship and co-operation between the two countries and about their partnership in pursuit of economic development and growth for mutual benefits.
"We must not, therefore, let purely domestic concerns create any impediment to such co-operation," he said, while adding that he was looking forward to discussing all outstanding issues, including the reasonable solutions to the present matter, in the best interest of two countries.