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A Swiss banker whose actions caused a U.S. judge to briefly shut down WikiLeaks three years ago faces trial for allegedly distributing confidential documents showing how his former employer helped rich clients to dodge taxes.
The case appears to be the first time a WikiLeaks informant will go on trial. It comes as the U.S. government also is trying to prosecute individuals linked to the website for publishing secret military and diplomatic files.
Rudolf Elmer, a former employee of Swiss-based Bank Julius Baer, has been ordered to appear before a Zurich regional court Jan. 19 to answer charges of coercion and violating Switzerland's strict banking secrecy laws. If convicted he could be sentenced to up to three years in prison and a fine.
Elmer said he will admit certain counts of coercion, but insisted he didn't break Swiss banking secrecy laws because the files he distributed belonged to a Julius Baer subsidiary in the Cayman Islands, where he worked for the bank for eight years.
"This data wasn't subject to Swiss banking secrecy," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Monday.
Swiss financial newspaper Cash was among those that in 2005 received a copy of a CD containing 170 megabytes of data on the Julius Baer's Cayman operations. The files reportedly showed the bank helped its clients set up secret offshore accounts to avoid paying taxes.
Elmer denied giving the files to Cash, but said he did distribute the CD to several media outlets and tax authorities. He later uploaded some of the same information to WikiLeaks, prompting a U.S. judge to shut down the website after Julius Baer claimed Elmer had engaged in "unlawful dissemination of stolen bank records and personal account information of its customers."
The bank quietly dropped its U.S. lawsuit when the suspension order was lifted two weeks later following complaints from free speech groups and media organizations, including The Associated Press.
Jan Vonder Muehll, a spokesman for Julius Baer, confirmed Monday that the bank is one of the plaintiffs in the case against Elmer next week before the Zurich court. But he said the trial would focus on the earlier release of data to Swiss media, not their publication on WikiLeaks.
The 2008 shutdown saw a surge in support for WikiLeaks, which until then had been virtually unknown to a wider public. The site has managed to stay online almost continuously since, despite growing pressure on its Internet service providers following the recent publication of thousands of leaked U.S. war records and diplomatic cables.
U.S. authorities are currently trying to build a legal case against WikiLeaks and some of its collaborators, claiming the release of the files puts lives at risk.