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Swiss serve time abroad

Poor conditions in foreign jails can be an added burden to the Swiss inmate Keystone

What might be a minor indiscretion in Switzerland could abroad be considered a major crime exacting a heavy penalty. Some 161 Swiss are serving time in foreign jails.

This content was published on December 26, 2001 - 13:05

Drugs, murder, rape, paedophilia or immorality count among the acts that have sent Swiss citizens behind foreign bars. The Swiss Foreign Ministry said men account for three quarters of Swiss prisoners abroad.

Drug offences account for the majority of incarcerations, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, Muriel Berset-Kohen, said.

Information service

Breaking the law overseas often exacts a heavier penalty than in Switzerland and the foreign ministry has set up an information service to warn travellers and would-be offenders of the fines they could face.

The website highlights the differences in penal code between Switzerland and the rest of the world.

Yemen, Malaysia, Thailand, Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia apply the death penalty for breaking their drug laws. The foreign ministry stressed that there was no reduction of sentence to be found in India for this crime.

More seemingly innocent activity could land a Swiss tourist in jail. For example, a tourist carrying any Israeli goods when entering Syria, including a travel guide, could be thrown into jail.

In Yemen, United Arab Emirates or Turkmenistan, a drunken traveller might wake up in a cell, as drinking is forbidden by law.

Homosexual or extra-marital relations might also see a tourist locked away in Cameroon, Egypt, India or Kuwait.

The Swiss Foreign Ministry also cautions its citizens to show respect for authority. Demonstrating against a government in West Africa or China, for example, is sure to land protesters in prison.

Incarceration abroad

According to the foreign ministry, there are five Swiss to be found in African jails, 30 in South America, 25 in Asia (including 12 in Thailand), and the rest in North American, Middle Eastern, South Pacific and Caribbean jails.

In South America, the "jailbirds" are confronted with bad security in packed prisons, said Thomas Gasser, chargé d'affaires at the Swiss embassy in Venezuela.

Max Thomann from the Swiss embassy in Algeria said conditions in a detention centre where one Swiss is serving time are very hard. His prison is in the desert and Thomann explained that summer is particularly difficult.

In 1999, a Swiss was sentenced to death for rape and murder. The time is soon approaching to see whether his sentence can be commuted to life imprisonment, said Béatrice Latteier-Schär, at the Swiss embassy in China.

Consular protection

All Swiss imprisoned abroad benefit from consular protection, including regular visits at least once a year. "If it is close enough, then we make visits every two or three months," Gasser said.

Embassies also provide practical aid, providing soap and medicine to Swiss imprisoned abroad. Most often, it is the friends or employer of the incarcerated who intervene to find legal help.

Serving time on home soil

In 2000, some 12 Swiss managed to serve their sentences in Swiss prisons. Bern transferred 17 foreign criminals to their home countries.

Spokesman at the Federal Prosecutor's Office Folco Galli, underlined that serving a sentence at home was not a right but a possibility.

In 1985, Switzerland ratified a Council of Europe convention on the transfer of inmates.

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