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Legal chess game in Swiss courts delays Iran-contra investigation

A chess game of procedural law is delaying acquisition of Swiss bank records central to the Iran-contra investigation being conducted by special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh. Lawyers for former national-security adviser John Poindexter and Lt. Col. Oliver North have said they expect their clients to be indicted. But informed sources, demanding anonymity, say ``clever lawyers'' could prolong a decision to indict indefinitely.

Both United States Marine Colonel North and Admiral Poindexter deny any wrongdoing. North says he was following orders from William Casey, the late director of central intelligence.

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Mr. Walsh has sought the records since last December. So far he has succeeded in obtaining only 70 pages of two ``peripheral'' accounts related to the arms transactions. The accounts were among several set up in 1985 and 1986 by North, retired Maj. Gen. Richard Secord, American businessman Albert Hakim, and Iranian middleman Manucher Ghorbanifar.

General Secord and Mr. Hakim controlled the accounts holding money from the sale of US-made weapons to Iran, and they disbursed funds to help support Nicaraguan contra rebels. North has acknowledged lying to Congress to help maintain the contra war effort.

Secord, who said he was a ``commercial cut out,'' has testified that he had operational control of the Iran-contra projects, with Hakim acting as his comptroller. The former US Air Force general says the roughly $8 million that is in dispute belongs to the ``enterprise.''

Mr. Ghorbanifar claims to have lost $10 million in the arms deal.

One person with knowledge of the investigation has said the ``US government apparently aims to argue that these funds were illegally converted.''

Other sources, also claiming anonymity, say that although important evidence from other foreign bank accounts has been discovered, the Swiss records are ``the kind of documentation that you have to have when you go to trial.''

On Aug. 20, the Swiss Federal Tribunal ruled that the records could be turned over, stating that Swiss national interests would not be compromised and further appeals to the ``advisory commission,'' the equivalent of the US Cabinet, would be a ``waste of time.'' However, that option is still open to objecting parties.

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On Sept. 3, Hakim and Ghorbanifar filed a second procedural appeal in the Swiss equivalent of an American state court. They have blocked the release of the more important documents by appealing the rulings that have gone in favor of the special prosecutor.

On Sept 21, the state court issued rulings on the two appeals in favor of the US. The parties were given 30 days to appeal that decision back to the Federal Tribunal.

A stay on production of the documents remains in effect and shrewd lawyering could continue delays.

The sources also say that Walsh expects Hakim and Ghorbanifar to exercise the advisory commission option.

The grant by congressional investigators of ``use immunity'' to central figures has placed upon Walsh what he terms the ``tough burden'' of collecting evidence from sources independent of compelled testimony protected by immunity. Before the public Iran-contra hearings, Walsh sequestered himself and portions of his staff and put in place a system of data collection that shielded them from press accounts and leads, drawn either directly or indirectly from committee activity.

Walsh has maintained that North is ``prosecutable,'' and that witnesses granted immunity by the select House and Senate committees ``will not be able to escape criminal responsibility.''

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