A growing number of Swiss citizens travelling or living abroad are being arrested and sentenced to prison for drug-related offences. Authorities say ignorance of local laws may be contributing to the number of arrests.
More than a third of cases recorded by the Swiss foreign ministry have led to prison sentences over the last 12 months. Prison sentences were handed down to more than 350 convicted Swiss around the world, with nearly half the cases related to the illegal trafficking or possession of drugs.
Markus Boerlin, a spokesman for the Swiss foreign ministry, said many Swiss are unaware that laws relating to the possession of drugs change the moment they cross the border into another country.
"Many people who go abroad, " Boerlin told swissinfo, "do not seem to be aware of the cultural differences and the way legal systems differ from country to country."
Harsher sentences in Asia, Latin America
The data reveal that a majority of drug-related charges brought against Swiss abroad originate in Asian and Latin American countries. Sentences in other European countries and elsewhere tend to be harsher than in Switzerland for offences related to soft and hard drugs.
At least one Swiss citizen is serving a life sentence in Asia after being convicted of a drug-related offence. No Swiss currently face the death penalty overseas.
"Especially in Asia, sentences for drug-related offences are very tough," said Boerlin. "We try to ensure that Swiss citizens are treated correctly, that they have access to a local lawyer as well as the services of a translator."
The foreign ministry says its embassy and consular staff are unable to interfere with local legal proceedings.
"Some people seem to think they can take more risks in developing countries than they would at home," Boerlin said. "As the statistics reveal, nobody should count on that."
Most of those arrested or imprisoned abroad are between 20 and 40 years old, according to statistics gathered at Swiss embassies around the world.
In response to the growing number of citizens falling afoul of overseas laws, the Swiss authorities have begun to make available more information about penalties for drug possession available to travellers and expatriates.
Much of the information is available online and in brochures distributed free on demand to any Swiss planning an extended trip abroad.
Boerlin urges travellers to be cautious. "We have to respect local laws even if they do not correspond fully with our own standards," he said.
swissinfo with agencies