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What does ‘life sentence’ mean in Switzerland?

Stacheldraht bei Gefängnismauer
Life behind bars can be either a punishment or protection for society. Keystone

The trial of a quadruple murderer has reignited the debate on lifelong imprisonment in Switzerland, where 'life' doesn't necessarily mean 'until death', and dangerous repeat offenders sometimes walk free.

In the United States, courts can pass prison sentences of more than 100 years. Regardless of the age of the defendant at the time of the crime, he or she may be placed behind bars and prevented from harming anyone outside of the prison.

It’s different in Switzerland. Yes, the criminal code provides for a “punishment of lifelong deprivation of liberty” for especially serious crimes such as murder, rape, hostage-taking or genocide. But that doesn’t mean the defendant will remain in prison until the end of his or her days. Conditional release can occur after 15 years, and in certain cases, even after ten years.

The problem is that even if the defendant carries out the sentence for the crime, paid his or her debt to society and regained the right to live freely, he or she can still represent a danger to society. 

The example of Erich Hauert is still remembered. in 1983, he was condemned to life for 11 rapes and two murders. But after several years, his sentence was softened, and during an unaccompanied leave in 1993, he raped and murdered a young woman. 

This week, the author of four murders in Rupperswil in the northern Swiss canton of Aargau appeared before judges in one of the worst criminal cases in Swiss history. In December 2015, the man entered a home and in a particularly vicious attack killed a mother, her two sons and the girlfriend of the oldest boy. They were unknown to him. After raping the youngest son, aged 13, the perpetrator slaughtered each of his victims. The verdict announced on March 16 found in favour of the prosecution, giving the man a life sentence, despite two psychiatric experts in the case having testified that the murderer was capable of rehabilitation.

The people vote for life imprisonment

In February 1996, another recidivist raped a young girl of 13, strangled her and abandoned her in an icy creek. She was only able to survive by pretending to be dead.

The victim’s mother and godmother launched a popular initiative calling for especially dangerous offenders who commit sexual crimes to be imprisoned for life, for reasons of public safety. 

In 2004, against the recommendation of the government, parliament and judicial experts, the Swiss people accepted the initiative, entitled “For Life Imprisonment”. 

Other European countries have also reintroduced life imprisonment in recent years. After the Second World War, many had abolished it out of respect for the rule of law.

Two types of imprisonment 

Today, there are in theory two ways to keep dangerous criminals in prison for security reasons in Switzerland, even if they have carried out their sentences. 

–     Normal imprisonment. If a court considers the person to be dangerous, they can be kept in prison for an indeterminate period. But the case will be regularly re-examined and the perpetrator can still be released conditionally as soon as it is determined that they no longer present a threat.

–     Life imprisonment. For those having committed particularly serious acts, who represent a high risk of re-offending and who are considered to be untreatable, the court can pass a life sentence. The case is not re-examined and the condemned can only be released if new scientific information makes therapy possible, such that the individual no longer presents a danger to society. 

The Federal Court cancels all life sentences

But in practice, only normal imprisonment is applied. Until now, the Swiss Federal Court, the highest court in the country, has lifted all life sentences. Currently, only one criminal in Switzerland is imprisoned for life in accordance with the initiative, and he had not appealed his sentence.

The authorities have nevertheless become more prudent with “normal” imprisonment releases. In the past 14 years, they have released each year on average 2% of prisoners. Extreme criminals with a high risk of recidivism remain effectively behind bars. 

A court drawing of the accused and his lawyer


Indeterminate sentence handed to the ‘Beast of Rupperswil’

This content was published on On Friday, the Lenzburg district court decided to give the murderer a “normal imprisonment” which means he can still be released conditionally if he no longer presents a threat. The prosecution had called for a life sentence – where the condemned can only be released if new scientific information makes therapy possible – which the…

Read more: Indeterminate sentence handed to the ‘Beast of Rupperswil’

Translated from French by Celia Luterbacher

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR