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Ban on undesirables finds echo in court

Those drinking alcohol in public may face banning orders Keystone

The Federal Court has decided that city authorities are entitled to ban undesirables from certain public places, amid much controversy about the practice.

This content was published on February 7, 2006 - 10:32

The court has thrown out a challenge to the law – in place in Bern since 1999 – brought by a group which was banned from parts of the Swiss capital for drunk and disorderly behaviour.

St Gallen followed Bern on January 1 this year, imposing its own law which allows police to remove people from certain public places, and to ban them from congregating there again.

Daniele Jenni, a lawyer and member of Bern's city parliament, is a staunch opponent of the city's policy, and helped the banned group take their appeal to the Federal Court.

"[The ordinance] is not compatible with the cantonal and federal constitutions, nor with the European Convention on Human Rights," he said.

The defendants in question were removed from Bern's railway station in November 2003, after complaints that they were drunk and disorderly. They were also prohibited from frequenting the area.

Justified

The Federal Court – the country's highest court - ruled at the end of January this year that the ban was justified on grounds of public interest in view of the distress - caused by noise and rowdy behaviour - suffered by people using the station.

The law was intended to clear Switzerland's capital of so-called "open drug scenes" and gatherings of alcoholics.

Article 29b of the cantonal police regulations allows the authorities to ban people from an area if "there are grounds to suspect that the group, or members of it, are disturbing or threatening security and order".

On the strength of this law, the police can order one or more people to leave a particular area, and ban them from returning, as a group, for a maximum period of three months.

"The law is applied in five parts of the city," Franz Märki, spokesman for the Bern city police, told swissinfo. "Every year, we impose bans of this kind several hundred times."

Disquiet

Although the law seems to be working – officials say open drug scenes have considerably declined in Bern – the idea of banning people from public places continues to cause disquiet.

"There are no clear criteria for excluding people, and therefore bans are imposed arbitrarily by the police: a person can be punished without having committed an offence," said Harald Buchmann of "Aktiv unzufrieden" ("Actively dissatisfied").

The group, consisting of young radicals protesting against human rights and environmental abuses, fears that the police will make widespread and inappropriate use of the law.

"The provision will be used mainly against foreigners, drug addicts and people living on the margins of society," said Buchmann. He also fears discrimination against punks and people who dress strangely, simply because they look different.

"We intervene only in response to people's behaviour, not the social group they belong to," counters Ralph Hurni, from St Gallen city police.

Medieval

Federal Court judges are also not unanimous about the law.

One judge from canton Vaud condemned the practice of excluding people from public places, comparing it with "measures adopted in the Middle Ages in respect of beggars and social outcasts".

Jenni is now considering taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

swissinfo, Luigi Jorio

In brief

The Bern Administrative Court ruled in May 2004 that the banning of a group of people from gathering in the railway station did not violate the Federal Constitution, nor the European Convention on Human Rights.

They were not prohibited from going to the station, but only from gathering there to drink alcohol.

In St Gallen, the ban came into force on January 1, and a similiar move was introduced in the town of Winterthur in canton Zurich in September 2004.

In Geneva the measure is applied exclusively to people who have broken drug-peddling laws or committed a theft.

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