Swiss Open Berezovsky Investigation

GENEVA -- Swiss authorities have launched a formal investigation into alleged money laundering and membership of a criminal organization by Boris Berezovsky, a wealthy critic of President Vladimir Putin, who was granted refugee status in Britain after fleeing Moscow.

Swiss Federal Prosecutor Valentin Roschacher said Sunday the probe was unrelated to the arrest of the former head of Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who -- like Berezovsky -- made fast fortunes in business deals under former President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.

"We are concerned with criminal justice not politics," Roschacher told the SonntagsZeitung newspaper. "We just want to know which ones of Berezovsky's activities in Switzerland were legal and which ones might have been illegal," Roschacher said.

Federal Prosecutors Office spokesman Hansj?rg Widmer confirmed that a probe had been opened.

There have been long-standing allegations of corruption against Berezovsky, including that he helped funnel hundreds of millions of dollars in profits from the national airline Aeroflot to Swiss front companies.

The Swiss handed over vast amounts of documents to Moscow in the case, but Russian authorities abruptly closed their investigation in late 1999.

Although the Swiss granted Russian requests for legal assistance against Berezovsky, this is the first time the Swiss themselves have launched a formal probe.

British police arrested Berezovsky in March in connection with Russian charges that he and an associate defrauded a regional government of the equivalent of $13 million during the mid-1990s by stealing cars from Russia's largest automaker, AvtoVAZ.

Berezovsky, under Yeltsin one of the most influential insiders at the Kremlin but now a fierce critic, was granted political asylum in Britain in September on the grounds that he risked death if he was extradited to Russia. He has always said that the charges are politically motivated.

Widmer said the Swiss probe was related to the AvtoVAZ case, but declined to elaborate.

Roschacher gave no details in the newspaper interview.

Roschacher said he hoped the fact that Berezovsky was now a refugee would not hinder the Swiss investigation, saying it was in Berezovsky's own interest to help with the Swiss inquiry and to travel to Switzerland for questioning.

"We opened the investigation against Berezovsky in all calmness and away from pressure because we have some grounds for suspicion of money laundering," Roschacher said.

In recent years, Switzerland has clamped down on money laundering in a bid to rid itself of its enduring image as a haven for ill-gotten gains.

Roschacher said that it was hardly surprising if suspect Russian money was making its way into Swiss banks, but he said that it was usually laundered first in other countries, making it harder for Swiss investigators to prove its criminal origin.