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Abduction alert scheme gains momentum

(Keystone)

The introduction of a child abduction alert system – until now always stymied by government – has received a boost days after the murder of a 16-year-old girl.

The Senate – in the third vote on the issue in 18 months – overwhelmingly passed a motion on Thursday calling on the government to press ahead with introducing a system on a national level this year. It will now go before the House of Representatives.

The government last month rejected the motion, saying the cantons were working on a system that was expected to be ready in 2010. Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf stressed the principle of cantonal sovereignty, "guaranteed by the federal constitution".

Others found this argument unconvincing, pointing out that the first national abduction alert was introduced in the United States, a federalist country where states are highly protective of their legislative powers.

"At present the [Swiss] police can interrupt a radio programme to announce that a tree has fallen on the motorway, but they can't do anything when a child goes missing," said Jean-Marie Bornet from Valais cantonal police on Wednesday.

"We already have a system which links the various police forces, radio and public service television stations to alert the population in the case of a catastrophe. Nothing is preventing us from expanding this to abduction."

Known danger

On March 4 Lucie Trezzini, a 16-year-old au pair from Fribourg, left her family's home by Lake Zurich to go shopping. At around 10pm she was seen for the last time in Baden, some 20km from Zurich, with a 25-year-old known as Daniel H.

On Sunday evening Trezzini was found dead in the apartment of Daniel H., who confessed to her murder the following day.

According to newspaper reports, Daniel H., who had tried to kill another young woman in 2003 and had spent four years in a rehabilitation centre, lured her to his flat, telling her he was looking for girls to model jewellery.

Public anger and incomprehension at why a man who was known to be dangerous under the influence of drugs and alcohol was free to commit such a crime is running high.

No one will ever know whether an abduction alert would have saved Trezzini, but the system's supporters are tired of waiting.

German resistance

Didier Burkhalter, the Neuchâtel parliamentarian from the centre-right Radical Party whose motion was passed by the Senate, told swissinfo he was calling on the government to implement a system similar to that in France – "which has proved itself".

In Switzerland such a system has until now always met a certain reluctance in the German-speaking part of the country. In Germany, authorities argue that most children reported missing turn up safe within two days and they fear an increase in false alerts.

For Burkhalter, however, it's more a problem of lack of information.

"The French-speaking Swiss watch French television and are more aware of the issue. But once the system is understood and people can see its usefulness and that it's another tool available to investigators, German-speaking Switzerland will also back it," he said.

Government

But at government level things are not so clear. In autumn 2007, on a wave of emotion following the murder of a four-year-old girl, the House of Representatives accepted two motions calling for the introduction of an abduction alert system. Discussions and consultations slowly began.

In September 2008 Burkhalter asked for a government update on the issue and was reminded by Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf that in the case of abduction criminal proceedings were the responsibility of the country's 26 cantons.

On December 18 Burkhalter and 24 colleagues put forward the motion which was accepted on Thursday, which forces the government to work with cantons and private parties to conclude a workable agreement "as soon in 2009 as is possible", according to Burkhalter.

Widmer-Schlumpf defended the government's position, saying the French system, which is limited to witness reports, was not an option. She preferred a system that included missing adults in addition to children, but said she would ensure the work with the cantons was sped up.

Public mobilisation

But while the politicians have been debating, the public has been mobilising.

Within a few hours of Trezzini going missing, her family and friends put up posters around Zurich and Baden. They also launched appeals on the internet and created a Facebook group to gather pieces of information.

The organiser admitted they were using the social networking site "for want of an abduction alert system".

Within 24 hours 10,000 people had joined the group and by the end of Monday – after the announcement of her death – the number had risen to almost 45,000. By Wednesday, by which time the site was serving only as a place to leave messages of condolence, more than 60,000 people had signed up.

Exactly what these people could have done to prevent Trezzini's death remains unclear, but it does prove that a rapid, large-scale mobilisation is possible in response to a simple message using modern technology.

swissinfo, based on an article in French by Marc-André Miserez

French model

Inspired by systems set up in the US (1996) and Quebec (2003), the French child abduction alert system has been in place since 2006.

The state prosecutor raises the alert based on the following criteria: the child is apparently under 18; there is a reasonable belief that the child has been kidnapped or abducted; there is reasonable belief that the child is in imminent danger of serious harm or death; there is sufficient information available to enable the public to assist police in locating the child; the parents have given their approval.

The message of alert, which should be "simple, concise and formal", then appears wherever possible: radio, television, stations, airports, motorways.

It appears to be effective. Until now the alert has been used seven times, and apart from the first case (a false alarm), in each instance the victims have been found within 24 hours thanks to witnesses who had heard or seen the messages.

Following this success, France suggested that the 27-member European Union adopt the scheme at a European level. Discussions are currently underway, but France has already given training courses to Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Britain.

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Youth crime in Switzerland

14,045 youths (79.5% boys) were convicted of crimes in 2006, according to the Federal Statistics Office. That was up about 2,000 from 1999.

Convictions for driving offences, attacks against people and property-related crimes have been increasing since 1999, while drug-related offences have dropped.

Police figures suggest violent youth crimes have doubled in the past eight years, but researchers say they view the numbers with caution.

Studies in Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden suggest people are reporting more crimes than before.

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