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Swiss guard faces hostility for saving bank documents

ZURICH, March 26 (JTA) — Special security arrangements are being provided for the Swiss bank guard who was dismissed after saving wartime documents from the shredder and giving them to the Jewish community. The arrangements were put in place after Christoph Meili received death threats, his lawyer, Marcel Bosonnet, said this week. “The life of my client is in danger,” Bosonnet said. Bosonnet would not provide details of the security arrangements, but said Meili had received threats from various anti-Semitic groups. “I had to act before it was too late,” Bosonnet said. “Neo-Nazis and others have accused my client of being an agent of the Israeli security service.” In February, Meili was fired from his job as a night guard at the Union Bank of Switzerland after he rescued sensitive Holocaust-era documents from the shredder and turned them over to the local Jewish community. The documents could have bearing on allegations from Jewish groups that the bank was withholding from their rightful owners the assets of accounts opened by Jews during World War II. Bank officials said at the time that Meili was not fired because he rescued the documents, but because he turned them over to a third party, which they said represented a possible violation of Swiss bank secrecy laws. Meili may face charges under those laws. His case prompted the Anti- Defamation League to establish a $50,000 legal defense fund, his lawyer confirmed this week. The 27-year-old Meili became something of a hero in Jewish circles after he rescued the bank documents. The Knesset invited him to come to Israel, and he was invited to Washington by Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee and one of Switzerland’s harshest critics. “It was always a dream of mine to see the United States. I talked to Senator D’Amato and thanked him for the invitation,” Meili said in an interview. But leaders of Zurich’s Jewish community pressured Meili not to travel, apparently fearful that he would become a pawn in a campaign to discredit ongoing Swiss investigations of how the country’s banks handled Jews’ wartime bank accounts. “We did not want Meili to get into D’Amato’s hands to be used against Switzerland,” said a spokeswoman for the local Jewish community. In the last days of February, Meili’s long-held dream of traveling to the United States almost was fulfilled. According to the spokeswoman, Meili boarded a Feb. 27 flight to New York to meet with D’Amato without informing either his lawyer or the local Jewish community. Also aboard the plane, by coincidence, was Edward Fagan, a lawyer who has filed a $20 billion class action suit against Switzerland on behalf of Holocaust survivors who were unable to reclaim their wartime accounts. Fagan, who recognized Meili, called the guard’s lawyer and Zurich Jewish community leaders during the flight, according to the spokeswoman. When the plane landed, Bosonnet and the leaders were able to reach Meili by phone and convince him to return home. Meili’s trip to the United States lasted only one hour, after which he boarded a return flight without meeting D’Amato — or seeing much of anything of the New World.