10 detained in Estonia over massive money laundering

Ten former employees of the Estonian branch of Danske Bank have been detained in connection with a probe into a major money laundering scandal that allegedly involved money from Russia and former Soviet states.

Estonian Prosecutor General Lavly Perling said Wednesday the employees were mainly Danske Bank client managers suspected of knowingly assisting large-scale money laundering that involved Azerbaijan and Georgia, two former Soviet republics.

One of the persons is suspected also of taking bribes, another of abetting bribes.

"These people were mostly customer relationship managers whose job it was to notify of money laundering cases, to prevent them," Perling told a news conference.

All ten are suspected of knowingly helping Danske Bank customers to transfer dirty money. Personal assets in excess of one million euros obtained through criminal activity have been confiscated from the suspects by court order.

Perling said the investigation into the case — part of a wider one into Danske Bank's Estonia branch — was launched in November 2017 and involves transactions up to 300 million of euros ($342 million).

She didn't rule out that the number of suspects would be widened at a later stage of the investigation.

Wednesday's case deals with two separate criminal schemes that allegedly took place between 2011 and 2013. One dealt with financial fraud in Georgia and another with tax fraud in Azerbaijan, Prosecutor Marek Vahing said.

Aivar Alavere, director of Estonia's Central Criminal Police, identified one of the suspects as Juri Kidjajev, the former head of private and foreign banking unit at Danske Bank's Estonian branch.

Kidjajev could not immediately be reached for comment but Estonian news portal Delfi reported he has recently been fired from his current employer, Citadele, a Latvian bank operating throughout the Baltics.

Former Danske Bank Estonia CEO Aivar Rehe and corporate banking head Tonu Vanajuur are not among the suspects but their past work activities are being carefully scrutinized, Vahing told Estonian newspaper Postimees.

The Estonian prosecutors' office said information provided by Kremlin critic Bill Browder, the CEO of investment fund Hermitage Capital Management, has been helpful in the investigation. Estonian media said most of the ten suspects were singled out in Browder's material.

The Danish bank admitted in September that some 200 billion euros ($227 billion) had flown through accounts at its Estonian branch from 2007 to 2015, following reports of transfers, including from family members of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Estonia was primarily a transit country in this money laundering scheme," Alavere said. "The suspects enabled criminal money laundering but obviously were not the main beneficiaries."

Separate major investigations have been launched in Denmark and Estonia, leading to a major shake-up at the Danish bank, including the resignation of Danske Bank's CEO.