In a case highlighting a top government priority of reducing risks for Swiss travellers abroad, Switzerland’s supreme court has rejected an attempt by a Bern police officer to claim lost pay while he was held captive for eight months by the Taliban in Pakistan.
The Federal Court, based in Lausanne, rejected an appeal by the 35-year-old police officer, David Och, who was taken captive in 2011 along with his companion, Daniela Widmer.
In March 2012, the Swiss couple turned up at an army post close to the Afghan border, claiming to have escaped from their captors, but Taliban commanders said a ransom was paid in exchange for their release.
Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter has insisted the Swiss government paid no ransom, and he used the case to try to discourage Swiss from venturing to high-risk areas of the world at a time of so many complex international crises.
One of the government’s priorities has been to counter what Burkhalter calls “the abduction industry” while spreading a message to would-be Swiss travellers that there is “the need for reflection on the responsibilities of each person regarding personal safety and the limits of state intervention”.
Last year, the government also denied assertions in a New York Times investigation that Switzerland was among European nations bankrolling terrorist groups through at least $125 million (CHF121 million) in ransom money paid to al-Qaeda for kidnappings since 2008. The figure cited for Switzerland was $12.4 million, supposedly paid to free a German and two Swiss hostages in 2009.
Switzerland belongs to the Global Counterterrorism Forum, and during the Swiss presidency of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) last year, Burkhalter made clear that the fight against ransom kidnappings was a key issue.
The Swiss court reinforced that message, saying Och, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, did not deserve to be compensated for his lost pay because the risk he took by travelling to Taliban-held areas was reckless.
The ruling affirmed a previous decision by an insurance court in Solothurn. That court had decided that the insurance company’s refusal to cover the lost pay as an accident was justified because of the couple’s “absolute reckless act”.
That decision was based on the foreign ministry’s warning in 2008 not to visit the region because of a high risk of attacks and kidnappings.
Along with the government’s disavowal of ransoms, it also has tried to hold down costs for consular assistance in emergencies. The costs of helping distressed citizens abroad have been rising as more Swiss travel to exotic locations, though few are kidnapped and held to ransom.
About one in ten of the Swiss population lives abroad – a number roughly equal to the population of canton Vaud, the third-largest of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, according to government figures.
swissinfo.ch and agencies