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Five months suspended sentence for doctor in deportation case

The death of the Palestinian deportee raised passions among human rights groups

(Keystone Archive)

A court in canton Zurich has handed down a five month suspended sentence to a doctor charged with death by negligence in the case of a Palestinian asylum seeker who suffocated while being deported.

Two policemen involved in the case were acquitted, and the court has reserved judgement in the case of a third police officer who was in charge of the deportation operation.

The doctor and the three policemen had all been charged with causing the death through negligence of 27-year-old Khaled Abuzarifa after they gagged him and strapped him to a wheel chair before putting him on a plane to Egypt.

Abuzarifa had allegedly explained that he suffered from breathing difficulties, but the doctor in the case assured police that gagging him would not pose a health risk.

However, Abuzarifa lost consciousness within minutes of being gagged, and police were unable to resuscitate him.

Delivering the verdict, the judge in the case said the doctor had shown negligence in his misdiagnosis of Abuzarifa's breathing problems, which he dismissed as a pretence.

The judge also said the doctor had failed in his professional obligations by agreeing to the imposition of a gag, but refusing to accompany the police officers and the prisoner to the airport.

On Wednesday, Richard Jezler, the lawyer representing the doctor, said his client would appeal against the sentence.

In addition to the five month suspended prison sentence, the doctor has been ordered to pay SFr50,000 ($28,000) in damages to Abuzarifa's family.

The judge referred the case of the police officer in charge of the deportation back to the prosecutor for clarification. However, the judge did say it was clear the officer had failed in his responsibilities towards the prisoner. He said that by not taking his duties seriously, the officer had endangered the life of a person in his care.

Following Abuzarifa's death, which took place in 1999, the human rights organisation Amnesty International called for better training of police and medical staff assisting in deportations.

The Zurich authorities no longer use gags during deportations, but Nerys Lee, Amnesty's research officer for Western Europe, says many other practices need to be improved too.

"We have reports that other types of restrictions, such as helmets and jaw plates, are being used," said Lee. "In addition we have heard that in some Swiss cantons deportees have suffered physical and racial abuse, or have been denied access to food and water and to the lavatory."

Lee said Switzerland's cantonal authorities should now review their deportation procedures as a matter of urgency.

"All guidelines and training instructions for police officers involved in deportations should be reassessed. Officers should be made aware that only the minimum amount of force should be used in deportations."

Lee pointed out that Switzerland was not the only country in which forcible deportations had resulted in death.

"There have been at least five deaths between 1993 and 2000," said Lee, "including cases in Austria, Germany and Britain."

Amnesty International believes all countries engaged in forcible deportations should be guided by certain basic principles.

"Methods of restriction which affect breathing should be banned," said Lee. "And of course all detainees should have access to food and water. All detainees should be treated with respect for their human dignity."

by Imogen Foulkes

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