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Rights watchdog criticises Geneva police

Geneva police arrest a demonstrator during the Evian G8 summit in June 2003

The Council of Europe has criticised certain police practices in Switzerland, in particular the alleged use of force during arrests by some Geneva officers.

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) singled out the police in Geneva where a number of officers resorted to kicks, punches and the use of police dogs during arrests as well as "strangling techniques" for the regurgitation of drugs.

The comments, published on Thursday, were contained in an official report following the CPT's visit to Switzerland from September 24 to October 5, 2007.

The CPT said that while it had "only very rare allegations of deliberate ill treatment" from people in police custody in cantons Aargau, Bern, Solothurn, Valais and Zurich, the situation in canton Geneva was "much more worrying".

The allegations of ill treatment against the Geneva cantonal police range from "an isolated slap" to "more serious abuse like kicks, punches, blows with a truncheon or the abusive use of tear gas".

It added that in many cases violence was carried out although the person had already been restrained or handcuffed.

The CPT also criticised "strangulation" techniques for the regurgitation of drugs used by Geneva officers on a dozen occasions during a nine-month period in 2007.

It further attacked "the non-conform use of dogs" while a suspect was allegedly restrained or on the ground, and two cases of "submarino", or near suffocation.

Official medical reports seem to back up these allegations. Between January and September 2007, 136 detainees were registered with bruises, injuries and cuts as they entered Champ Dollon prison, canton Geneva's investigative custody detention centre.

"We are surprised and concerned by these findings," said Marc Nève, the Belgian head of the CPT's human rights team. "We have never come across these kinds of problems in Switzerland before."

Urgent measures

In their official reply to the report, the Swiss authorities acknowledged the "great importance of the prevention of torture and inhumane or degrading treatment" and added that certain measures had already been undertaken to implement the CPT's recommendations following its visit.

They also declared that two messages condemning ill treatment had been sent to the entire Geneva force before the CPT visit.

In a written statement, the Swiss government also stressed that the vast majority of people who had been interviewed by the European team of human rights experts said the police had dealt with them correctly during their arrest, interrogation and detention.

But Denise Graf, a lawyer with Amnesty Switzerland, said measures taken by the Geneva force were insufficient, as incidents of ill treatment during arrests still occurred.

Taken too lightly

"We've had several cases this year," she told swissinfo. "One extremely serious case in April 2008 could have been fatal. And we are still waiting for a reply about that from the cantonal police."

Graf said the Geneva authorities took allegations of police abuse too lightly and additional measures and political will were needed at all levels.

She said the training of Geneva officers in human rights should be strengthened and a zero-tolerance approach introduced concerning cases of abuse.

"There is a problem with disciplinary procedures and the appeals process in Geneva," said Graf. "Internal police investigations do not work correctly; we believe an independent body is needed to investigate ill treatment."

Of the 30 official complaints of abuse against the police in 2007, only one disciplinary action was taken and no cases went to court, the police stated.

"It's also very important that Geneva introduces a police registration system so that officers can be properly identified," added the Amnesty lawyer.

The Geneva cantonal police were unavailable to comment on these accusations at the time of writing.

Detention conditions

Regarding prisons, the CPT paid particular attention to the conditions of detention of persons against whom a compulsory placement measure or institutional therapeutic measures had been ordered, as well as to conditions in the security units.

It also examined the situation of juveniles and young adults in education centres.

Among the institutions inspected was Champ-Dollon, which is notorious for being Switzerland's most overcrowded prison.

Although the CPT found no evidence of torture or serious abuse at the sites it visited, it issued several recommendations designed to improve conditions where cells were too small, poorly aired or badly equipped.

The main purpose of the inspection was to assess the implementation of measures adopted by the Swiss authorities after a previous CPT visit in 2003.

The CPT also said people detained after being refused entry to Switzerland should benefit from "living conditions which are not dissimilar to those of people who are free".

swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Geneva

European Convention for the Prevention of Torture (CPT)

Under the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, CPT delegations have unlimited access to places of detention.

They also have the right to unrestricted access inside secure units and can interview detainees in private.

The "periodic" visit to Switzerland is one of 11 that the CPT undertook in 2007. Other countries included Spain, the Netherlands, Croatia and Moldova.

After each visit, the CPT sends a confidential report containing its conclusions and recommendations to the country concerned.

The CPT previously visited Switzerland in 1991, 1996, 2001 and 2003.

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