Covering events from January-December 2001

Swiss Confederation
Head of state and government:
Moritz Leuenberger
Capital: Bern
Population: 7.2 million
Official languages: German, French, Italian, Romansh
Death penalty: abolitionist for all crimes
2001 treaty ratifications/signatures: Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court

Allegations of police ill-treatment, often of foreign nationals, persisted, as did the use of dangerous methods of restraint and excessive force by police, notably during forcible deportation operations. One man died during deportation. An unarmed man was shot dead in disputed circumstances during a cross-border chase by police. Restrictions were placed on the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF).

WEF policing operation

In January hundreds of people gathered to demonstrate against the annual WEF held in Davos, and some demonstrators and participants in meetings organized there by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were prevented from entering the country or reaching Davos, in the east of the country, where a planned demonstration was banned. Many demonstrators were turned back at a nearby village and violent clashes took place between some demonstrators and police, both there and in Zurich.

Sixteen NGOs taking part in the WEF, including AI, wrote to the government recognizing the authorities' responsibility to ensure the security of WEF participants, but expressing concern about restrictions placed on the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, guaranteed under international human rights standards and the federal constitution. They called for a review of the WEF policing strategy in order to safeguard such rights in the future.

The government expressed regret about the restrictions imposed but said that "security measures were necessary" because the planned demonstrations, they claimed, threatened both the WEF participants' safety and their freedom of assembly and expression, and indicated that the courts would determine any infringement of constitutional rights. Official analyses of issues surrounding the WEF policing operation were initiated at the federal and cantonal level. In September the Federal Court ruled that the ban on the Davos demonstration had not violated constitutional rights of freedom of assembly and expression, given the risk of violence, but said that the authorities should have examined other options.

Ill-treatment on arrest

There were reports of ill-treatment and excessive force by police, often accompanied by racist abuse. Some official investigations into such allegations were unsatisfactory. The text of a draft code of penal procedure unifying the existing 26 cantonal codes of penal procedure and three federal laws on penal procedure was issued in June, opening a consultation process due to end in February 2002. It included improved safeguards against ill-treatment of detainees in police custody, such as possibilities of earlier access to a lawyer and of having a third party immediately informed of the detention.

  • A video recording made by neighbours of Cemal Gömeç, a Turkish-Kurd refugee with a history of psychiatric illness, showed Bern Municipal Police officers striking him some 15 times with batons at the end of a four-hour standoff at his apartment during which he had threatened officers with a knife. Uniformed officers repeatedly fired rubber bullets and irritant sprays at him, and used a stun grenade and batons to overcome him and pin him to the ground. After a doctor injected him with a sedative he lost consciousness and suffered a cardiac arrest. He died in hospital four days later. The findings of initial forensic examinations included injuries caused by a blunt instrument to his face, head, torso and limbs, and fractures to his face. An investigation by the Bern Cantonal Police, under the direction of an investigating magistrate, was opened to establish the precise cause of death and whether charges of causing bodily harm and death through negligence should be brought against municipal police officers.
Ill-treatment during forcible deportation

Several criminal proceedings were under way in connection with use of excessive force, and dangerous and degrading methods of restraint during deportations under police escort. Two had resulted in death.

In July a court sentenced a doctor to five months' suspended imprisonment for causing the death through negligence of Khaled Abuzarifa, a Palestinian, at Zurich-Kloten airport in 1999. In preparation for deportation he was given a sedative and had his mouth sealed with adhesive tape (an officially-sanctioned restraint method at the time), was bound hand and foot, and strapped into a wheelchair. He died of asphyxia. The judge said that the doctor, who appealed against the sentence, had shown negligence in his misdiagnosis of Khaled Abuzarifa's breathing problems, which he had dismissed as a pretence, and failed in his professional obligations by agreeing to the taping of the prisoner's mouth but refusing to accompany him and the police officers to the plane. The court acquitted two of the escorting officers, but returned the case of the third to the public prosecutor for further investigation.

In July an autopsy concluded that the death of Samson Chukwu, a Nigerian asylum-seeker, in a detention centre in the Canton of Valais in May, at the start of a forcible deportation operation, could be attributed to positional asphyxia, resulting from dangerous restraint methods used by two police officers. They had lain him face-down on the floor, with his hands bound behind his back and an officer lying on top of him. In September the investigating magistrate decided that no criminal investigation should be opened against the officers, concluding that they had not violated standard procedures, and had not been trained in and were unaware of the dangers of the restraint methods they had used. Samson Chukwu's family lodged an appeal questioning these conclusions.

It was reported that a working group on deportations formed in December 2000, involving cantonal and federal authorities, was progressing towards the establishment of common guidelines on the execution of deportation operations and a pool of specially-trained officers. In June AI called on all cantonal governments to review, as an urgent priority, police restraint techniques and the relevant guidelines and training for police and medical personnel involved in deportation operations. AI made a number of recommendations for the safe implementation of deportation procedures, including the banning of methods of restraint impeding respiration and appropriate guidelines to minimize the risk of positional asphyxia. The working group was apparently taking AI's recommendations into account.

UN Human Rights Committee

In November, following its consideration of Switzerland's second periodic report on its compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Human Rights Committee welcomed progress made since the initial report but found failings in a number of areas, including reports of police brutality. Many of these concerns had been raised by AI.

The Committee instructed Switzerland to establish in all cantons "independent bodies" to "receive and investigate effectively all complaints of excessive use of force and other abuses of power by the police". It said that their powers "should be sufficient to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice or, as appropriate, subject to disciplinary sanctions sufficient to deter future abuses and that the victims are adequately compensated". It emphasized that "the possibility of resort to court action cannot serve as a substitute for such mechanisms".

The Committee also instructed Switzerland to ensure that all forcible deportations be carried out in a manner compatible with the Covenant and underlined that "it should ensure that restraint methods do not affect the life and physical integrity of persons concerned". It asked the government to report back within 12 months on the implementation of its recommendations on this issue.

AI country reports/visits

  • Concerns in Europe, January-June 2001: Switzerland (AI Index: EUR 01/003/2001)
  • Switzerland: Alleged use of excessive force by officers of the Bern Municipal Police – the case of Cemal Gömeç (AI Index: EUR 43/007/2001)
  • Switzerland: Death during forcible deportation: an exchange of correspondence following the death of Samson Chukwu (AI Index: EUR 43/005/2001)
  • Switzerland: The fatal shooting of Michel Hercouët by officers of the Basel-Stadt Cantonal Police (AI Index: EUR 43/009/2001)

An AI delegate visited Switzerland in March to carry out research.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.