* Falciani arrested for alleged breach of Swiss bank secrecy
* Spain to address Swiss extradition request within 40 days
* Falciani admitted passed on data, calling it “civil duty”
ZURICH, July 24 (Reuters) - A former HSBC employee accused of stealing data on up to 24,000 secret Swiss accounts from the British lender and handing them to the French tax authorities has been arrested in Spain on a request by Swiss authorities seeking his extradition.
A spokeswoman for the Swiss justice department confirmed a French media report on Tuesday that Herve Falciani, a former HSBC computer specialist of dual Italian and French nationality, was arrested in Spain three weeks ago.
“The Swiss representation in Madrid deposited a formal extradition request with Spanish justice authorities on July 5,” she said. “It’s now up to Spanish authorities to decide.”
Spain’s justice ministry confirmed receiving the extradition petition, which goes to the cabinet within 40 days.
Swiss authorities allege Falciani passed confidential data he took from HSBC in Geneva to French tax authorities, breaching Swiss banking secrecy laws, before absconding.
In 2009, Falciani admitted leaking the data to French authorities, telling France 2 television the action was his civic duty.
“If you discover that ... offshore structures have no other aim than to avoid taxation and that the sole legitimacy of these structures is that purpose, what would you do?” he said. “You either play ostrich or you try to find out.”
Strict secrecy rules, which have helped Switzerland build up a $2 trillion offshore banking sector, have come under pressure as governments around the world look to clamp down on tax avoidance in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
Earlier this month, German tax authorities launched raids into Credit Suisse clients, some of whose names were culled from data stolen by an informant.
Former Julius Baer banker Rudolf Elmer, who helped bring the WikiLeaks website to prominence three years ago when he used it to publish client details to expose tax evasion, was found guilty in 2011 of breaching Swiss bank secrecy but was only sentenced to a minimal suspended fine. (Reporting by Katharina Bart. Additional reporting by Paul Day in Madrid; Editing by Mark Potter)