Judge set to deliver verdict in Canyoning trial

Judge Thomas Zbinden (left) and court stenographer Andrea Spon arrive at the court in Interlaken Keystone

A verdict in the Saxet Brook Canyoning trial is expected on Tuesday afternoon.

This content was published on December 11, 2001 - 12:44

Judge Thomas Zbinden is considering whether the eight defendants are guilty of manslaughter through culpable negligence in the deaths of 21 people in the 1999 Canyoning accident.

The dead were killed by a flash flood which swept through the Saxet Brook near Interlaken during a canyoning expedition organised by the now defunct extreme sports company, Adventure World.

The defendants either owned or worked for the company.

In his closing statement on Monday the cantonal prosecutor, Hanspeter Schuerch, asked for the harshest penalties - 10 month suspended sentences and fines of SFr10,000 - to be given to the three members of the board of Adventure World.

The other managers and guides face suspended sentences of between five and eight months and fines of between SFr1,000 and SFr7,500.

Corners cut

In a four-hour address to the court, Schuerch described the three businessmen as being unable to keep up with the rapid growth of their company. They had begun a major restructuring in the months leading up to the accident, but, as Schuerch hinted, corners were cut.

There were no written safety guidelines, and no clear hierarchy at the guide level. Inexperienced guides were hired - most of those who lead the trip on July 27, 1999 were working their first season - and were given no training or instruction concerning the weather.

At the same time the guides were under pressure to go ahead with as many trips as possible because they were paid per tour. Yet they were given the ultimate responsibility of deciding whether to go ahead or cancel.

The managers were aware of the natural dangers inherent with Canyoning trips, including flash flooding, but failed to take weather conditions properly into account.

Schuerch repeated testimony given by the defendants themselves to show that the managers did not consult precise and up to date weather reports, which would have shown the storm breaking over the area before the trip went ahead.

He also referred the court to testimony and statements given by experts to prove that sudden flooding in the Saxet brook caused by storms was common knowledge.

Defence rejects charges

The three defence lawyers rejected all of the charges. Franz Mueller appealed to the judge not to take public opinion into account, which he said had already found the defendants guilty.

Mueller along with his colleague, Guenther Galli, asked the court not only to take the material evidence into consideration, but also the Swiss criminal code.

In that case, they argued, the defendants have to be found innocent because they did not act with any negligence.

They repeated statements from experts and locals that while flooding was a common occurrence, the huge deadly wave that suddenly appeared was an undocumented natural phenomenon. Therefore, it could not have been foreseen.

Mueller and Galli emphasised that the training of the Adventure World guides was as good as any in the business.

There was no, and still is no ban on Canyoning during storms, they stressed.

A verdict is due on Tuesday.

by Dale Bechtel in Interlaken

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