Civil rights group questions Swiss ban on public demonstrations

Demonstrators protested against the government's lockdown measures in Bern's parliament square last weekend. Keystone

Amnesty International has criticised a clampdown on public demonstrations in Switzerland, a number of which were broken up by police on May 1. The civil rights group has demanded clarification from the government on the right to peacefully demonstrate as the pandemic lockdown starts to lift.

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For several weeks, the government has imposed a ban on more than five people gathering in public spaces. This restriction will not be lifted for the second phase of the easing of the lockdown that starts on May 11.

At the time of imposing the ban, plus a CHF100 fine for people who refused to observe the restriction, health minister Alain Berset said: “It is a harsh measure in a free society but necessary to protect vulnerable people.”

But this did not prevent groups of people gathering in some Swiss cities on May 1, a traditional Labour Day activity, and on the following day. Police broke up some of these gatherings, most notably in the capital, Bern, and in Zurich.

The Swiss branch of Amnesty International has questioned whether this was necessary and has demanded a return to the right for free assembly. “The expression of personal opinion in public places should be allowed if it clearly does not represent a risk of spreading the pandemic,” the civil rights group stated on Tuesday.

“Even during an epidemic, a general ban on assemblies should be a measure of last resort. Measures to restrict public demonstrations should be applied proportionately. There is no reason to prohibit forms of action that do not pose a threat to public health.”

Amnesty International also called on the government to “specify under what conditions expression of public opinion and demonstrations are allowed” by May 11.

The Swiss government has assumed greater powers under the powers of the Epidemics Act. But it has also been criticised in some quarters for the way it has handled the situation.

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