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Lawsuit Claims Banks Profitted from Apartheid - 2002-06-17

A group of American and South African lawyers is suing three banks that they say benefited from South Africa's apartheid government. The multi-billion dollar lawsuit is targeting American and Swiss banks.

Lawyers are suing the U.S. banking giant Citicorp, and Switzerland's two largest banks, UBS and Credit Suisse. The complicated international lawsuit is being filed in a U.S. court, in the name of four victims of apartheid.

The lawyers say they have set up a telephone hotline to help recruit more plaintiffs. The case is open to anyone tortured, imprisoned, banned or forcibly relocated by the apartheid regime. The lawyers say they hope to add thousands more plaintiffs to the class-action suit.

The legal team says the apartheid government would not have survived so long if it had not been supported by loans from the American and Swiss banks, despite U.N. economic sanctions that were in place at the time. Switzerland, which is not a member of the United Nations, did not take part in the U.N.-sponsored economic embargo against South Africa, although it did observe an international arms ban.

Both of the Swiss banks accused have said they believe there is no legal basis for the suit. Nonetheless, the lawyers say they plan to target more international banks and other companies, including some in Germany, France, and Britain. They refuse to put a price tag on the case, but do not dispute the figure of $51 billion reported in Swiss newspapers.

The case was announced Monday at news conferences in Zurich and Soweto, outside Johannesburg, at the memorial built to honor Hector Petersen, a 12-year-old schoolboy who was shot and killed by South African police in 1976, at the start of the Soweto student uprising.

His sister, Lulu Petersen, told reporters the plaintiffs want reparations from the international companies and banks that "profited from the blood and misery of our fathers and mothers, our brothers and sisters."

American lawyer Ed Fagan is spearheading the court case. He is best known for his victory in a similar class action lawsuit in 1998, when he forced Swiss banks to accept a $1.25 billion settlement for Holocaust victims and their heirs. Mr. Fagan says he is modeling his South African claim on the Holocaust case.

The international legal effort is being coordinated by South African human rights lawyer Dumisa Ntsebeza, a former chief investigator for the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

A hostile crowd greeted Mr. Fagan as he attempted to speak to reporters in Zurich on Monday. The mostly elderly protesters booed and heckled him, accusing him of being interested only in money and of trying to ruin Switzerland's international reputation. Mr. Fagan was forced to move the news conference to another location.