Swiss get tough on violent offenders

Dangerous repeat offenders will never be released from prison Keystone

Fears of an increasingly violent society have prompted the Swiss to approve lifelong incarceration for dangerous criminals and sex offenders considered untreatable.

This content was published on February 8, 2004 minutes

The issue clearly struck a chord with voters concerned for their safety and the safety of their children.

They delivered a firm rebuke to parliament and the government, which had rejected the people’s initiative on locking up repeat violent offenders as too harsh.

Only one of the government parties – the rightwing Swiss People’s Party - had argued in favour of the initiative, which was put forward by a group representing victims and their families.

Some observers were surprised that the initiative passed despite having little political support and not much financial backing.

But political analyst Jeremias Blaser said the adoption of the initiative could reflect the changing political tide in the country.

“What I’m wondering is whether the acceptance of this initiative is not a confirmation of the shift to the right, which we were able to observe during the last elections and the election of the government,” he told swissinfo.

Protecting victims

The committee campaigning for a “yes” vote expressed delight with the outcome, which it said would write into law the protection of society against repeat offenders.

Committee president Ulrich Schlüer said the result showed the people were “more concerned with protecting victims than with protecting the guilty”.

It also indicated they wanted tougher sentences for convicted criminals, he said.

The “yes” vote opens the way for violent offenders to be locked up for life, without the possibility of parole, if a psychological assessment carried out by two independent experts finds they cannot be cured. The system currently in place allows for regular psychiatric evaluations.

A senior Zurich psychiatrist, Frank Urbaniok, said he was not surprised by the result, which reflected a need for security in Swiss society.


“It was a very emotive question,” Urbaniok told swissinfo. “There is the understandable demand of society to be protected from the most dangerous offenders - about 30 to 50 people.”

The government had argued that a revision of the existing law on criminals – due to come into force in 2006 – would provide a better solution to the problem of repeat violent offenders.

But the public thought differently. Schlüer said the initiative would strengthen the revised law by increasing the penalties against those guilty of violent and sex crimes.

Urbaniok said experienced psychiatrists could usually accurately determine those felons who could not be treated and who, after Sunday’s vote, would remain locked up for life.

“Normally they have a long history of violence… These are people who, for example, have killed twice or three times and nothing will happen in future to give a reasonable chance you could release them,” he said. “Those are the people you can call untreatable.”

The initiative was triggered by a number of cases in the 1980s and 90s of murderers and rapists reoffending during weekend leave from prison or after being released.

swissinfo, Morven McLean


56% of Swiss voters supported the initiative on life imprisonment for violent criminals.
Support was highest in canton Ticino, at 74.6%.
Basel City and Vaud were the only two cantons to vote against the initiative.
The initiative had the support of only one of the four government parties – the People’s Party.

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