The United States has highlighted several cases of human rights abuses in Switzerland, particularly in the treatment of asylum seekers, in the state department's annual report on human rights around the world.
In a generally favourable report on Switzerland's human rights record, the state department highlighted some serious shortcomings in the treatment of asylum seekers, women and foreigners.
It cited allegations by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which accuse the police of "harassment directed against foreigners, particularly asylum seekers, including arbitrary detention".
It said "violence against women was a problem", as is "trafficking in women for forced prostitution", and that "some laws still tend to discriminate against women". It also mentioned continuing "reports of verbal abuse against foreigners by private citizens".
The 24-page report includes several specific cases of human rights abuses, including the death of an asylum seeker during his forced deportation at Zurich airport in 1999. Khaled Abuzarifeh, a 27-year old Palestinian, died of suffocation when police reportedly gagged him to keep him from crying out.
Responding to the report, Jörg Schertenleib of the Swiss Refugee Council, an NGO, said it was important that attention was focused on Europe's asylum policy. "European countries are trying to make themselves less attractive to asylum seekers, in the hope of dissuading others from coming to Europe."
The report says that Switzerland has "traditionally been a haven for refugees", but that mounting public concern has led the government to "tighten its policy regarding their acceptance".
Schertenleib told swissinfo that the death of Abuzarifeh proves that Swiss asylum policy is in need of urgent reform to find "better solutions on how to expel asylum seekers".
Asylum seekers who arrive in Switzerland currently have only 24 hours to write an appeal, says Schertenleib. "It's crucial that asylum seekers have the right to appeal and access to free legal aid, but in 24 hours, this is virtually impossible."
The Swiss Refugee Council has proposed that the government grant free legal aid to all asylum seekers, but the measure has so far been rejected.
Requests for asylum in Switzerland fell sharply last year, dropping to less than half the number of applications in 1999.
The Federal Office for Refugees refused to comment on the report. It received 17,611 requests in 2000, a 62 per cent drop on the previous year. Asylum was granted in just 2,061 cases, just over six per cent of all applications.
swissinfo with agencies