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SWITZERLAND

Swiss fury over Saab ‘meddling’ in Gripen vote

Swedish defence contractor Saab has been slammed over claims of attempting to influence a referendum in Switzerland that could determine whether or not the Swiss air force purchases 22 new Jas Gripen fighter jets.

Swiss fury over Saab 'meddling' in Gripen vote

Swiss Social Democratic MP Evi Allemann claims that Saab has been quietly financing campaigners in favour of the deal, worth an estimated 3.1 billion Swiss francs ($3.47 billion).

While Saab's support of the pro-Gripen campaign may not be technically illegal, Allemann sees the Swedish firm's behaviour as bordering on scandalous.

"We don't have any clear rules for referendum campaigns, as a result, foreign companies feel they can shamelessly get involved in national decisions," she told the TT news agency.

Saab has neither confirmed nor denied the accusations, citing Swiss rules which "also include refraining from comment on campaign financing".

But the accusations of Saab's involvement has also caused concern among those who support the deal, with the leader of the liberal FDP party, Philpp Müller, calling such actions "counterproductive".

"It makes it harder for us centre-right politicians to convince people of the importance of the Gripen purchase," Müller told Swiss newspaper Blick.

The developments come following a decision taken last week that a referendum on the deal would be held on May 18th. Opponents submitted over 100,000 signatures seeking a referendum, with campaigners hoping to block the Gripen deal.

Under Switzerland's system of direct democracy, citizens can have the last word on a huge array of issues if campaigners muster enough signatures from voters in order to force a plebiscite.

Polls have shown that a majority of voters oppose the Gripen deal.

Approved by the government in 2011 and backed by parliament last year, it cannot be blocked as such.

But opponents have been able to contest the law that allows the purchase to be funded by drawing an annual 300 million Swiss francs from the army's budget over 10 years.

The coalition campaigning against the deal is steered by the left-leaning Socialists and Greens, as well as anti-militarists, but also includes economic liberals opposed to the price tag.

The opponents also argue that the model of Gripen chosen by the authorities only exists on paper, as its maker, Sweden's Saab, is still developing it.

Last month, Saab's Gripen beat the Rafale, made by France's Dassault, and the F/A 18 Super Hornet built by US company McDonnell Douglas in the race to sell 36 planes to Brazil.

The estimated value of the Brazil deal is $5 billion.

The air force of neutral Switzerland currently has 32 Super Hornets in service, purchased in 1996.

There are currently 166 Gripen fighters in service globally, with 100 in Sweden, 26 in South Africa, 14 each in the Czech Republic and Hungary, and 12 in Thailand, according to Saab.

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CORRUPTION

Fresh bribery claims in Swedish jet scandal

Swedish defence firm Saab paid around a billion kronor to shady middlemen as part of a controversial deal to sell fighter jets to South Africa, according to documents obtained by a Swedish tabloid.

Fresh bribery claims in Swedish jet scandal
A Jas 39 Gripen jet flies above Cape Town in South Africa. Photo: AP Photo/mbr/The Star

Saab's sale of 28 Jas 39 Gripen aircraft – later reduced to 26 – to South Africa has been tainted by scandal and corruption allegations ever since it took place back in 1999.

The Swedish defence giant has always denied any wrongdoing in the deal which was mainly carried out by a subsidiary owned by Saab and British BAE and has said that no evidence of any suspect deals has turned up in its internal investigations.

But according to Sweden's Expressen newspaper, internal BAE documents handed to the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), a UK-based government authority that investigates fraud and corruption, show that money was paid out to shady agents suspected of being involved in bribery.

According to the paperwork, 7.25 percent (or 13 billion kronor – $1.58 billion) of the total sales of the Gripen planes and the British Hawk aircraft was potentially handed over to secret agents. According to Expressen, the claims formed part of a UK investigation into bribery allegations linked to this cash.

Other classified documents published by the newspaper on Thursday suggest that BAE's former head of marketing for South Africa and Asia, Allan MacDonald, told SFO officers several years ago that Saab had been kept informed of all costs and the agents involved.

“I gave them more information than they had ever got before and they were informed about the arrangements with the agents on chief executive level. They knew,” the documents suggest he said.

In a statement to Expressen published on Thursday, Saab's press spokesman Sebastian Carlsson dismissed the claims that almost a billion kronor was handed to agents, but did not deny that large payouts were made.

“There's nothing strange about a person receiving compensation for the work they do. So I mean, that's not the problem, if there is a problem. The problem would in that case be what a person does,” he told the newspaper.

“If it was 7.5 or 6.5 or 4.5 or 10.5 percent [is irrelevant]. That's nothing, that's what it was like 'in the good old days'. But I can tell you that if back then you had these kinds of commission-based contracts in the export industry, the sums could sometimes be high,” he added.

Saab is one of the world's leading defence and security companies and has around 14,700 staff around the world. It is not connected to Saab Automobile.

Earlier this year it was ranked as one of the European arms companies best at tackling corruption by the Transparency International thinktank.