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SWISS banks may have handed over client details to the US, but they have said India is not welcome there on a name-fishing expedition. “Swiss law and even the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) model tax convention do not permit fishing expeditions, in other words, the indiscriminate trawling through bank accounts in the hope of finding something interesting. This means that India cannot simply throw its telephone book at Switzerland and ask if any of these people have a bank account here,” said a top official at Swiss Bankers Association from Basel.

The secrecy shield provided by Swiss banks have always been a big issue in India, including during the campaign for this year's general elections, and the government recently said that it has approached Switzerland seeking details about bank accounts held by Indians there. Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee recently informed Parliament that the government was committed to unearthing black money within and outside the country. “Swiss authorities, I am told, have agreed for negotiations (on the issue)... We have already taken it (the issue of black money) not only with Swiss authorities but other nations as well,” Mr Mukherjee said.

   A few days back, the US reached an agreement with Switzerland, under which top Swiss bank UBS AG turned over details of 4,450 secret accounts to the Internal Revenue Service.

   Asked how India’s request would be handled, especially in the backdrop of the UBS settlement, SBA's head of international communications James Nason said that "the key for the exchange of information in tax matters is the double taxation agreement between Switzerland and India.”

   The official noted that the Swiss bank-client confidentiality has never been 100% absolute and Swiss legislators have built in provisions for it to be lifted during criminal investigations and also in many civil cases and it has also evolved over time.

   SBA, however, asserted that the basic principles remain intact even following the recent agreement with the US and “the privacy of bank clients innocent of any wrongdoing remains protected and privacy remains the natural state of affairs.”

   “No one, not even the Swiss tax authorities, has an automatic right of forced entry into a client's bank account without first satisfying the requirements and conditions stipulated by Swiss law.”

   Switzerland has double taxation agreement with over 70 countries, including India. “There have long been well-established legal procedures under which Switzerland provides international legal assistance in criminal cases and in tax matters and any country may lodge a request for such assistance through the official channels,” Mr Nason said. SBA noted that exchange of information on tax matters takes place under the terms of the double taxation agreement and these are being “currently revised to incorporate the OECD standard on the exchange of information in tax matters according to the OECD's own model tax convention".

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