Covering events from January - December 2003

Police officers allegedly ill-treated detainees, particularly non-Caucasian Swiss and foreign nationals, and used excessive force against demonstrators. There was concern that new measures relating to social assistance and a draft law on asylum might result in hardship for people in need of international protection and impede the effective exercise of the right to seek asylum. Domestic violence against women continued to be a serious problem, despite a number of initiatives by the authorities to address it.


In October, the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP/UDC) won the largest share of the vote in parliamentary elections. As a result, it obtained a second seat in the seven-member federal government thus changing the balance of power in the four-party coalition government for the first time since 1959. There was widespread concern about the deeply xenophobic tone of the SVP/UDC's election campaign. A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees commented that it included "some of the most nakedly anti-asylum advertisements by a major political party which we've seen to date in Europe". Ministerial responsibility for the federal department of justice and police, which covers asylum matters, was subsequently assigned to the SVP/UDC leader for the duration of 2004.

Police ill-treatment and use of excessive force

There were regular reports of ill-treatment, often accompanied by racist abuse, during identity checks, at the moment of arrest and in police stations, as well as persistent reports of the use by police of inherently dangerous restraint techniques. Such acts were apparently often committed with impunity. Tasers (dart-firing, high-voltage stun guns) were acquired by several cantonal police forces. There was concern about the health risks associated with such weapons, as well as their potential for abuse. Many detainees were denied fundamental safeguards against ill-treatment in police custody, such as the right to have immediate access to a lawyer and to have relatives informed of their arrest.

Further progress was made towards the eventual unification of the 26 cantonal codes of penal procedure, as recommended by intergovernmental bodies to ensure, in particular, legal guarantees of fundamental safeguards for detainees in all cantons.

There were sporadic allegations of ill-treatment and racial abuse of foreign nationals by police at Zurich-Kloten Airport. In October, the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment visited the airport, principally to assess implementation of measures it had recommended concerning procedures and restraint methods applied in the context of forcible deportation operations. In 2001 it had found that the manner of such operations presented a manifest risk of inhuman and degrading treatment. The Committee also reviewed in October the treatment of foreign nationals detained in the airport's transit zone and Prison No. 2 pending deportation.

  • There were reports of ill-treatment by police during raids on two transit centres for asylum-seekers in Glarus Canton in July. Police officers forced their way into the rooms of the sleeping asylum-seekers in the early hours of the morning. They bound them hand and foot, covered their heads and photographed them while some were almost or completely naked. They then held them in the centres' common rooms for around five hours. One man was gagged with adhesive tape. Neither search resulted in any criminal proceedings against those detained. In November, an examining magistrate issued the findings of his investigation into police conduct during the raids. He concluded that some of the measures used by the police went beyond "acceptable and proportionate bounds", that the gagging was dangerous, and the manner in which the asylum-seekers were photographed was "degrading". He stated that there was an obvious need for relevant police training, but could not discern deliberate intent by the police to abuse their authority or wrongfully detain the asylum-seekers. He ordered the destruction of the photographs. He also ordered the state and the commanding officer to share the costs of the proceedings, and the officer also to compensate four asylum-seekers who had lodged a criminal complaint.


Police allegedly used excessive and unwarranted force in the context of several demonstrations, and inappropriately used police equipment designed to temporarily disable or incapacitate people.

  • In March, after violent confrontations had developed between demonstrators and police, Denise Chervet was injured at Geneva's central railway station. After Denise Chervet threw a bottle at the police following an altercation between her son and a police officer, she was hit on the forehead and body by two projectiles, which left fragments permanently embedded. It subsequently emerged that a weapon firing plastic capsules, containing paint and covered with bismuth, had recently been tested by the Geneva police and that an officer had used the weapon against Denise Chervet. The weapon's manufacturers indicate that the projectile is intended to bring a targeted person to a halt, while the paint marks them for arrest, but warn that police officers should never aim towards the face, throat or neck. The Geneva authorities subsequently withdrew the weapon. An independent commission of inquiry conducted several investigations, some ongoing at the end of the year, into the behaviour of the cantonal police, who had initially denied responsibility for injuring Denise Chervet. In December, a criminal investigation concluded that the officer who fired the weapon had acted according to his instructions and no charges were brought against him. The police captain who had authorized the use of the weapon during the demonstration was charged with causing bodily harm through negligence.
  • In June, there were extensive violent confrontations between protesters and police, as well as peaceful demonstrations and protest actions in Switzerland, in connection with the G8 Summit in neighbouring France. Geneva police were alleged to have indiscriminately and abusively used batons, stun grenades and rubber bullets. The Geneva Cantonal Parliament established an extra-parliamentary commission of inquiry to investigate, among other things, the conduct of the relevant Geneva authorities during G8 policing operations. A number of criminal proceedings were opened into individual incidents.

Investigations: updates

  • In May, a Bern court acquitted four police officers of the attempted grievous bodily harm of Cemal Gömeç, a Turkish-Kurd refugee, in July 2001. Two of the officers were also acquitted of causing his death through negligence. The judge ruled that his death was attributable to intense stress combined with the restraint methods used to subdue him while he lay on the ground, resulting in positional asphyxia. The police officers indicated that they were unaware of the dangers of positional asphyxia associated with the restraint methods they had used. Noting this, the judge ruled that they had used no more force than necessary in subduing Cemal Gömeç. The Bern Attorney General lodged an appeal against the verdict.
  • In April, a Geneva court rejected an appeal against the Attorney General's decision to dismiss a criminal complaint lodged against police officers by a Cameroonian woman following her detention in August 2002. The woman alleged that police officers had physically and racially abused her, strip-searched her in the presence of male officers, and separated her from her five-week-old baby. Her lawyers announced their intention of lodging an appeal with the Federal Court. They said the criminal investigation had been closed without their client being questioned and without any attempt to obtain statements from relevant witnesses.
  • In June it was announced that an independent complaints body established by Zurich City Council in 2002, following revelations about a series of cases of alleged misconduct and ill-treatment by Zurich Municipal Police, had dealt with over 100 complaints and inquiries over a 12-month period and that 46 complaints concerned "real or putative" physical and/or verbal infringements of rights by the police. The lawyer heading the complaints body indicated that he had found no evidence of systematic physical assault by the municipal police but stressed that "no police force is immune to error". He proposed a range of measures to ensure all appropriate steps were taken to minimize the use of force and, in order to reduce "possible discrimination against foreigners", recommended increased levels of advice to police on inter-cultural matters. The Council stated that the proposals were under consideration by the police and that the work of the independent body would fall under the auspices of the city's Ombudsman's Office in future. In July, the City Council's Audit Commission issued a report following its examination of 10 controversial incidents involving the police, mostly occurring in the first half of 2002. It made a series of recommendations aimed at improving the conduct and functioning of the police.

Violence against women

In January the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women examined Switzerland's combined first and second reports. The Committee listed violence against women among its principal areas of concern in Switzerland. While recognizing legal and other efforts to address the issue, the Committee expressed concern about the prevalence of domestic violence, trafficking in women and girls and "a significant number of cases of female genital mutilation among migrant women of African descent". It called on Switzerland to intensify its efforts to address these problems as infringements of human rights. A series of legislative and other measures to combat violence against women were subsequently taken at cantonal and federal level.

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.