|Rudolf Elmer, right, seen here with Julian Assange, faces charges for breaking Swiss banking secrecy laws [AFP]
A Swiss banker, who claims to have handed WikiLeaks details of rich tax evaders, has appeared before a Swiss court to face charges for breaking Switzerland's strict banking secrecy laws.
Rudolf Elmer's trial on Wednesday comes two days after he handed more client data to WikiLeaks that prosecutors allege he stole after being fired from his job at Julius Baer Bank.
The data which was given to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, included two data CDs that Elmer said contained names of 2,000 wealthy account holders, but refused to give details of the companies or individuals involved.
Elmer said he was trying to expose a widespread system of tax evasion by rich businesspeople and politicians.
Prosecutors allege that Elmer tried to extort money from Julius Baer and its senior executives and also sent bomb threats to his ex-employer.
According to a prosecution statement, Elmer denied issuing a bomb threat against the bank, but admitted threatening to send details of the bank's exclusive offshore clients to tax authorities in Switzerland, Britain and the United States.
He also said he did not breach Swiss bank secrecy, since the documents he leaked referred to accounts in Cayman, where Swiss courts have no jurisdiction.
Prosecutors are asking for Elmer, who headed Baer's office in the Cayman Islands until he was fired by the bank in 2002, to be sentenced to an eight-month jail term and a $2,083 fine. The hearing is expected to last just one day.
The trial in Zurich has drawn broad media attention and about a dozen protesters gathered in front of the court building.
Members from the left-wing Alternative Liste party held up a banner, saying: "They want to hang Rudi, they let Kaspar off the hook", in a reference to UBS chairman Kaspar Villiger.
Last year, UBS handed over thousands of client details to end a damaging US tax probe, but none of its bankers were prosecuted in Switzerland.
"We think those who expose the distasteful side of Swiss finance need our support," said Walter Angst, one of the protesters.
Several Swiss banks including UBS, AG and Credit Suisse Group have suffered embarrassing data leaks in recent years, some at the hands of disgruntled employees.
Elmer's actions had caused a US judge to shut down WikiLeaks for two weeks in early 2008, marking the only time that the secrecy-spilling website has been forced offline for a significant amount of time.
Since then, WikiLeaks has shot into public consciousness for publishing thousands of secret US military and diplomatic files.