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BRUSSELS, Nov 17 (Reuters) - A Belgian judge has charged the Swiss private banking arm of HSBC with tax fraud and money laundering, accusing the bank of offering wealthy clients ways of hiding their cash and evading tax.
Prosecutors said on Monday that the charges related to illegal business carried out by a Swiss unit of HSBC for wealth management clients, many of them from the Antwerp diamond trade.
"The Swiss bank is suspected of having knowingly eased and promoted fiscal fraud by making offshore companies available to certain privileged clients," prosecutors said in a statement.
The statement said that the offshore companies were based in Panama and the Virgin Islands, with no economic activity and their only aim was to hide the wealth of the bank's clients.
"The damage done to the Belgian state is estimated at hundreds of millions of euros," the prosecutors added.
The homes of some 20 clients of HSBC Private Bank (Switzerland) were searched in October last year in connection with the investigation.
An HSBC spokesman, reached for comment, referred to a statement in its interim report, saying it was aware magistrates in Belgium and France were investigating whether the Swiss unit acted appropriately on tax reporting requirements.
The bank gave no further comment.
The judge will ask several employees of HSBC Private Bank to appear for questioning. (Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek; editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Clara Ferreira Marques)