Seven former and current bank employees have been arrested in Hong Kong as part of a major operation against a US$810 million international money-laundering syndicate, police said Wednesday.

“It’s the largest case we have busted in recent years,” said Yip Wing-lam, a superintendent at the commercial crime bureau, adding it was the first time local bank staff had been arrested for involvement in money laundering.

Police declined to name the banks those arrested worked for.

Investigators said those detained are alleged to have helped a key Hong Kong-based member of the syndicate apply for business accounts, including falsifying company documents and coaching applicants for interviews.

At least 14 business accounts were opened between 2017 and 2018 using names of 16 people from mainland China and Belgium, police said.

The accounts handled a total of HK$6.3 billion (US$810 million) in illicit funds.

Police said much of the money could be traced to a number of foreign countries, including Italy, Germany and Vietnam.

Some US$1 million in cash was seized at the public housing apartment of one of those arrested, police added.

Hong Kong is a major international business hub and a key conduit for China to access international markets and finance.

It bills itself as one of the world’s most free economies, but transparency campaigners have long complained that lax regulations make it an easy place to launder money and set up shell companies.

Money laundering carries sentences of up to 14 years in jail and a fine of HK$5 million (US$645,000).

In recent weeks, police have used laundering charges to freeze money raised by crowd-funding to defend people arrested for taking part in 2019’s huge and often violent democracy protests.

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