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Swiss terrorism trial Islamic State verdicts mark ‘turning point’

Some of the accused in the courtroom via a sketch artist


Leading Swiss papers have welcomed the Federal Criminal Court’s ‘exemplary’ convictions of foreign Islamist militants, accused of planning a terror attack in Switzerland as part of the Islamic State group. 

“This is a turning point which marks a real willingness to fight the jihadist threat,” the Le Temps French-speaking daily wrote on Saturday. “It sends out a warning signal…this verdict proves that Swiss justice wants to be intransigent on this sensitive area. There is no question of Switzerland, which for a long time has considered itself unaffected by the phenomenon, being the soft underbelly in the fight against terrorism.” 

In Switzerland's first convictions of people accused of links to the Islamic State and first heavy sentences for terrorism, the three Iraqis were jailed on Friday for between 42 and 56 months, at a trial conducted under tight security in the southern Swiss city of Bellinzona. A fourth man was acquitted. 

The verdicts are not final. The defendants, aged between 29 and 35, and the prosecutors all have the right to appeal. The prosecutors had asked for sentences of up to 7.5 years.

In an editorial, the Tages-Anzeiger daily said the verdicts were “good for Switzerland”, as they showed terrorists in Switzerland could expect “tough punishment”. 

“The rule of law also works well in the era of terror,” it added. 

The NZZ newspaper said the verdicts in the first trial of IS members in Switzerland represented “a success for the Attorney General Michael Lauber”. 

“Federal Criminal Court followed long sections of the arguments of the prosecution,” it said. 

Lauber told reporters on Friday that the verdicts showed clearly that Switzerland would not tolerate “abuse of its liberal and open values via terrorist activity”. 

“Baking bread” and “watermelons”

The three main defendants, who had denied wrongdoing, were arrested in early 2014 on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks and helping Islamic State militants enter the country. 

The 69-page court indictment said the accused formed contacts with ISIS leaders outside Switzerland, specifically in Syria. It documented Facebook messages, which allegedly contain coded messages. “Baking bread” meant making explosive devices, “watermelons” referred to explosives and weapons while “bridegrooms” stood for suicide bombers, the prosecution stated. On Friday, the court ruled that those messages could be considered a call to arms in support of the Islamic State, even if the words themselves were not of a violent nature. 

“Are the high penalties appropriate?” asked the Tages-Anzeiger. “It is important to remember that many small and harmless steps allowed the IS to threaten Iraq, Syria or Turkey and wreak carnage in Europe. The judiciary must fight these with harsh verdicts, but also acquittals. Prudent judgments strengthen the rule of law - and weaken the terrorists.” 

Le Temps highlighted the next challenge for Swiss judges: dealing with Swiss jihadists returning from Syria and Iraq. The House of Representatives recently backed tougher punishment for people committing terror acts abroad and returning to Switzerland. They want to increase the maximum sentence from 3 years to 10.

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