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Swiss vote may crack banks' code of secrecy

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Eager listeners crowded into the school hall in the Swiss lakeside village of Meilen, near Zurich, to hear politicians and bankers do battle over the survival of an institution that is as Swiss as the Matterhorn - bank secrecy.

In hundreds of meetings like this throughout the nation, the Swiss people have been preparing to vote next weekend (May 20) on whether their famous bank secrecy should be weakened substantially to allow foreign governments access to the Alpine nest eggs of delinquent citizens.

The referendum, backed by Social Democrats, church organizations, unions, and third-world organizations, is aimed at stopping the billions in flight capital that pour into Switzerland.

At present, Switzerland does not give legal assistance on currency regulation or tax avoidance, except where fraud is involved. A ''yes'' on Sunday would change all this, except in cases where bank customers faced possible political or racial persecution at home.

Fifty years ago, to protect Jewish clients from Nazi snooping, Switzerland made breaking bank secrecy a crime punishable by up to six months in jail or a maximum $22,000 fine. Even a bank employee who gives out information through carelessness faces criminal proceedings. This makes Swiss bank secrecy the toughest to penetrate, apart from tiny neighboring Liechtenstein, in the world.

Although it is the Mafia and third-world dictators who have given Swiss bank secrecy a bad name, ''ordinary'' tax dodgers find the tight-lipped Swiss equally useful. French customs officials constantly battle against citizens' fondness for a Geneva bank vault by tapping telephones, opening mail, and badgering people at border crossings. This month the Swiss government protested their sniffing around on Swiss territory.

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