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Soldiers sent home for racist behaviour

The Swiss army would rather not see extremists within its ranks

(Keystone)

Two corporals and two recruits at a Swiss army training camp have been suspended for using Nazi salutes and racist as well as far-right expressions.

The suspensions come shortly after other cases of misconduct within the ranks were revealed in the media.

The defence ministry announced the suspensions on Friday, adding that the misconduct was confined to a small group of soldiers.

Officers and recruits at the training school in Isone, canton Ticino, witnessed the incident last week. The two recruits and one corporal admitted to their behaviour, while eyewitnesses identified the second corporal as having taken part.

The army has launched an administrative procedure against the four men, according to spokesman Felix Endrich. Further investigations will determine whether the soldiers were rightwing extremists before beginning their service.

Background checks will also be carried out to see if the men had prior criminal convictions or had been investigated by the police. "These checks have been business as usual for the army for the past three years," Endrich told swissinfo.

Zero tolerance

The defence ministry statement pointed out that while the army cherishes freedom of expression, it does not tolerate extremist language, gestures and actions within its ranks.

The army will decide how to proceed after the investigation is concluded. A wide variety of sanctions could be imposed on the four men, ranging from fines to an expulsion from the military.

Expulsion from the ranks would however depend on a court conviction, either by civilian or military judges.

Endrich said this type of incident is rare, occurring only a handful of times per year. He said the army tries to avoid calling up known extremists, although it's hard to keep them out.

"There are approximately 800 rightwing extremists within the army's ranks, according to the government's extremism watchdog," Endrich told swissinfo. This is around half the estimated number of neo-Nazi activists or sympathisers in the country.

President heckled

Extremist behaviour has been making headlines across the country since August 1. Neo-Nazis heckled President Samuel Schmid during his National Day speech in central Switzerland.

The government said this week it condemned such behaviour, but would leave it up to the local authorities to deal with extremist incidents.

Endrich reckons the media coverage of the Rütli events has been positive for the army. "Soldiers and other members of the army are probably more receptive to extremist issues since August 1 and are probably more likely to report certain types of behaviour," he added.

Other types of reprehensible behaviour within the army ranks have also been picked up by the media this week. On Tuesday, the 20 Minuten newspaper published pictures of recruits in Thun simulating torture.

The images were similar to those taken in Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib prison, showing Iraqi prisoners in degrading positions.

While the former recruits claim it was never their intention to mirror the Iraqi events, the army has condemned their behaviour.

"These pictures are disgusting," army spokesman Daniel Reist told the Le Matin newspaper on Wednesday. "It shows a lack of respect for the victims of torture."

"These recruits obviously did not realise what they were doing," he added.

No disciplinary measures will be taken, as the event took place more than a year ago. But the recruits' commanding officer has asked the military justice office to consider other action.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

For the past three years, the government's extremism watchdog duties have included surveillance of potential extremist elements within the army's ranks.

There usually less than eight cases of extremist behaviour recorded each year.

But there are an estimated 800 rightwing extremists in the army.

The armed forces try however to avoid calling the more extreme members of the Far Right.

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