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Terror convicts’ release puts Switzerland in a bind

A scene from the March trial of the first individuals convicted of plotting a terror attack in Switzerland (Keystone)

A scene from the March trial of the first individuals convicted of plotting a terror attack in Switzerland


The first of three men convicted this year of plotting a terror attack in Switzerland has just been ordered released from prison. What happens next is a matter of intense debate within Swiss intelligence and political circles, with no clear solutions visible. 

Michael Lauber, the federal prosecutor in the case, acknowledged that authorities faced a dilemma over what to do with the three men soon after the verdicts were delivered in March. 

“On the one hand, convicted terrorists cannot be allowed to stay in Switzerland. On the other, we can’t put Switzerland’s humanitarian tradition at risk. Now we have to think about these questions and must have answers as soon as these individuals are released from prison,” he told Swiss public radio, SRF, earlier this year.

The case resulted in Switzerland’s first convictions on charges of involvement with Islamic State (IS) activities. Four men from Iraq were put on trial for plotting an attack. Three were found guilty; the fourth was set free after being accused of travelling to Syria to deliver radio equipment to IS contacts.

The longest prison term handed out among the three men is four years and eight months. But based on time served and the court's determination that he is unlikely to engage in further criminal activity, the first of them was ordered released last week after having served just two-thirds of his sentence. However, according to Swiss public television SRF, the Federal Office of Police has placed him in deportation proceedings to keep him behind bars for longer though actual deportation is unlikely.

The other IS plotters are set to be released next year.

Alain Mermoud, an intelligence advisor for Swiss Armed Forces, sees three possible outcomes: the three men could be deported to Iraq; more evidence could be found to keep them behind bars; or authorities could release them into Switzerland under surveillance. 

“Who wants to take terrorists back? Nobody. So the probability is low that they will be deported,” he said. Switzerland does not have an extradition treaty with Iraq, he added, nor is it a “safe country” to which people can be sent back without threat of their lives being in danger. 

In addition, Mermoud said, there is a lack of legal basis for adding more time to the men’s sentences. Which is why “the highest probability is that they will be set free”, he said. 

“They have paid their debt to society, that’s the idea we have in our law,” said Mermoud. “But we need to keep an eye on them.”

But how? 

Switzerland permits the intelligence service to keep an eye on individuals through electronic means if there is reason to believe that they could pose a threat to national security. 

Although convicts are considered legally rehabilitated after they serve their sentences, “that doesn’t mean they can’t still pose a security threat,” said Isabelle Graber, who heads communications for the Federal Intelligence Service (FIS). 

“The FIS can carry out surveillance on people who pose a threat to Switzerland during or after their sentences, depending on individual cases,” she told swissinfo.ch. 


Whereas other European countries have used electronic bracelets to keep track of high-risk individuals, Switzerland does not allow for it. Mermoud argues this is why a new intelligence law is badly needed: because it would give FIS extended surveillance capabilities. 

Last year, parliament approved that law to give intelligence services more ways to monitor private communications. Swiss voters will have the final say this coming September. 

In the meantime, the Swiss intelligence adviser thinks that the authorities will have to “think outside the box”, maybe even turning to self-policing to engage neighbours and communities. 

“The government could pay informants to keep an eye on them – the stereotype is the old lady behind the curtain, but it may be the best possibility we have,” he said, emphasising that this merely an idea, and not Swiss government policy.

His personal preference, he said, would be that “they leave the country on their own and have some incentive to do so.” He declined to comment on what those incentives could be. 

Terror sentencing – a European dilemma

The question of how to deal with convicted terrorists has become a burning issue across Europe, where the average prison sentence for acts of terrorism among EU member states was six years in 2014, according to Europol – down from 10 in 2013. 

“Despite aggressive intelligence work and strong anti-terror laws, European terrorists often serve less than ten years for offences that would carry terms of 20 years to life in the United States,” journalist Sebastian Rotella reported in an article for ProPublica on what he called “Europe’s revolving-door prisons”.

Lauber had argued for a prison sentence of 7.5 years for the ringleader of the IS terrorists convicted in Switzerland. In the end, the four years and eight months that he received landed below the European average. 

Longer prison sentences send a strong message from governments that terrorism will not be tolerated, according to Christina Schori Liang, an advisor at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy’s emerging security challenges programme. She also cites extensive research, however, showing that time in prison may have unintended consequences. 

The recent terror attacks in Brussels and Paris have “absolutely” influenced debates over the length of prison sentences, but “the biggest debate is over what is happening in prison” about terror recruitment, she said. 

Both masterminds of the Paris terror attacks were likely radicalised in prison, she said, and a recent issue of the Islamic State’s online magazine mentioned that prison time furthers the organisation’s cause by allowing it to spread its message. 

Growing pains

All of that puts authorities into even more of a bind when it comes to dealing with terror convicts. 

Switzerland has its own special challenges. Merging the country’s international affairs and strategic intelligence services back in 2010 has resulted in a clash of legal frameworks, said Schori Liang.

“At the same time, Swiss authorities are monitoring social media activity of about 400 possible terrorists who might pose a security threat,” she said. “The number is always increasing and eventually it will be difficult to keep up the pace.” 

Mermoud agrees that Switzerland’s existing structures – especially the fact that each canton’s authorities work autonomously – “can be a bit of an obstacle” when it comes to communicating and fighting terror threats. 

On the question of dealing with released terror convicts, however, Mermoud said he is “confident that the Swiss will find a Swiss compromise – nothing extreme, with some surveillance; something in the middle.”

What considerations do you think need to be made when sentencing those found guilty of planning terror attacks? Have your say in the comments.

Contact the author of this article on Twitter: @vdevore

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