BERN, April 20 (Reuters) - Switzerland's top law enforcer took on 237 new criminal investigations last year, 25 percent more than in 2016, as one of the world's most secretive financial centres steps up efforts to tackle international crime.
Attorney General Michael Lauber, at a press conference on Friday, said his office was also working on 307 requests for mutual assistance from abroad, after getting nearly 200 new requests in 2017, many for help on complex, cross-border cases involving bribery, money laundering and potential extremism.
While he said his 234-person staff is "nearing its limits" with the present caseload, Lauber encouraged other countries to reach out to Switzerland for assistance as he seeks to undo Switzerland's reputation as a place to hide illicit money in the country's famed banks - and return it to its rightful owners.
Lauber's 40-page report on Friday included details about high-profile cases lawyers were investigating, including more than 100 criminal cases relating to Brazilian oil company Petrobras. So far, that includes one criminal case against a bank in Switzerland.
"It's possible there will be more," Lauber said. "We're doing this diligently, because we know that the people involved as well as the Swiss financial institutions have good lawyers and we don't want to be beaten on a technicality."
Of 1 billion Swiss francs ($1.03 billion) frozen by authorities in the Petrobras case, Switzerland has returned 200 million so far to Brazil, but Lauber said that amount will grow.
"You can be sure of one thing, we don't want to keep the money, if it does not belong to the Swiss or the government," he said.
Ongoing investigations include the scandal-plagued world soccer body FIFA and its former Secretary General Jerome Valcke and German soccer star Franz Beckenbauer, Lauber said.
Beckenbauer remains the subject of investigation but has not been indicted, said Lauber, whose prosecutors interviewed the German last year over their probe into his country's successful bid for the 2006 World Cup. Lauber did not know when the investigations into FIFA would be done, but it could still take years.
"We have 45 mutual legal assistance requests, at the beginning (in 2015) we had none," he said. "Give me two more years, but again, I can't promise you. It's not 90 minutes."
Swiss authorities are also assisting prosecutors in Italy in Nigerian cases involving Royal Dutch Shell, which has filed a criminal complaint against a former senior employee over suspected bribes in the $390 million sale of an oilfield in the African country.
The high profile Swiss insider trading case in 2016 involving Hans Ziegler, a former director of companies including German robots maker Kuka, had helped in another unrelated insider trading prosecution.
"The publicity surrounding the arrest of (Ziegler) in November 2016 raised awareness among the general public and the insider trading community of the extent to which the OAG applies compulsory measures in insider trading investigations," Lauber said in his report.
At the end of 2017, the Attorney General said his lawyers were handling 478 ongoing criminal investigations. ($1 = 0.9741 Swiss francs) (Reporting by John Miller; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)