Tough prison rules cause legal headache

Lifelong detention is in breach of basic human rights Keystone

Parliament is to consider ways of implementing controversial regulations for the lifelong incarceration of dangerous criminals and sex offenders.

This content was published on June 18, 2006 - 14:13

Voters approved a people's initiative on locking up repeat violent offenders in a nationwide vote two years ago but the authorities have been struggling to present a viable solution.

The government, parliament and many legal experts were rather taken by surprise in February 2004 when just over 56 per cent of the Swiss electorate came out in favour of the initiative, despite its having little political support and financial backing.

The initiative calls for offenders who are considered particularly dangerous and untreatable to be locked up for life, without occasional leave from prison.

The possibility of release from jail can be considered only if there is new scientific evidence that a felon can be treated and that he no longer presents a danger to society, according to the initiative.

This proved tricky for the authorities because it runs contrary to the European Human Rights Convention, which calls for a periodic reassessment of all prison inmates. It took more than one attempt for the justice ministry to come up with a draft for implementing the measures.

Human rights

Most cantonal authorities and the rightwing Swiss People's Party welcomed a first version, but all the other major political parties as well as legal and medical experts, human rights groups and the Catholic Church came out against it during the consultation procedure.

A revised draft by the cabinet, due to be discussed by the Senate during the current session of parliament, is slightly less restrictive than the previous version and the text of the initiative.

The latest proposals foresee setting up a committee of experts to consider the possibility of therapy or even release from prison based on new scientific findings.

But the plan has been dismissed by the group which launched the original initiative in the late 1990s following a series of rapes and murders by repeat offenders during weekend leave from prison or on parole.

Promises and concerns

The group called on Justice Minister Christoph Blocher to live up to his promise to implement the initiative without any changes. He had openly supported the initial proposal when he was still a member of parliament for the People's Party.

The initiative group also hinted that it could force another nationwide vote on the issue, if parliament watered down the strict measures.

Psychiatrists have raised their voices against the latest government plan, saying it is too much of a burden for medical experts to decide on their own on the possible release of a criminal.

Parliament earlier this year tightened the rules on sexual offenders and other violent criminals. As part of the revision of the penal code it approved a proposal to incarcerate for life criminals who are already doing time.

swissinfo, Christian Raaflaub

In brief

The people's initiative to lock away violent criminals was handed in to the federal authorities in 2000.

Supporters collected about 200,000 signatures, nearly twice as many as necessary to force a nationwide vote.

The initiative was triggered by a number of cases in the 1980s and 1990s of murderers and rapists turning back to crime on weekend leave or after being released from jail.

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