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Universal jurisdiction Switzerland cleared by European court for rejecting Tunisian torture case


Security forces of the regime of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali have been accused of torturing protesters during the so-called Arab Spring


The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Swiss courts are not obliged to take up a case involving a Tunisian man who claimed he was tortured by the Ben Ali regime in 1992. 

In 2004, Tunisian Abdennacer Naït-Liman – who was granted asylum in 1995 – requested a Swiss trial for damages against the Tunisian state, and against the then-interior minister whom he held responsible for his alleged arbitrary arrest and torture over a six-week period in 1992. 

Citing an absence of territorial jurisdiction, neither the Geneva Court of First Instance, the Geneva Cantonal Court, nor the Federal Supreme Court agreed to take on his case. Naït-Liman then turned to the European Court of Human Rights, which upheld the decision of the Swiss courts in 2016. The case was then referred to the court’s Grand Chamber, which confirmed the decision on Friday. 

"Impunity for crimes of torture has unfortunately been reinforced with this judgment. Many torture victims who have found refuge in Europe will continue to be denied justice and reparation, even though they are entitled to it in accordance with international human rights standards," said Tawanda Mutasah, senior director of law and policy at Amnesty International. 

Universal jurisdiction 

Switzerland changed its legislation in 2011 to admit the principle of “universal jurisdiction”, which allows it to try people of any nationality suspected of “international crimes” (genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity) committed anywhere in the world. Yet only one person has so far been tried and convicted in the country under this principle, in a case dating back to the late 1990s. 

Human rights NGOs are lobbying Switzerland to prosecute former Gambian minister Ousman Sonko and former Liberian rebel leader Alieu Kosiah for crimes against humanity and war crimes, respectively. However, both Sonko and Kosiah are currently in custody in Switzerland, unlike the former Tunisian interior minister, who escaped arrest during a medical visit in 2001.

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