Foreign criminals to face tougher regime
The government wants foreigners who have committed serious crimes to be expelled from the country and residence permits to be revoked.
But on Wednesday the cabinet said a proposal by the rightwing Swiss People's Party for the automatic deportation of foreign criminals went against international law and basic constitutional rights.
Observers point out that the government tightened its initial proposals following a broad consultation procedure among political parties, organisations and civil society.
The cabinet plan will take into account whether the expulsion of offenders is reasonable and whether it is in line with international treaties, according to Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf.
She said the government rejected the automatic expulsion of convicted foreigners but stopped short of declaring the initiative invalid.
Both the government's proposal and the rightwing initiative will be discussed in parliament before they are put to a nationwide vote.
The Swiss People's Party collected more than 210,000 signatures in a highly controversial campaign to coincide with the last parliamentary elections in 2007.
The party wants all foreigners out who are convicted of crimes or are engaged in welfare fraud.
Under the cabinet plan, foreigners who are sentenced to jail terms of at least two years, as well as those found guilty of crimes carrying a minimum sentence of one year –including murder, rape, human trafficking and arson - will be forced to leave Switzerland.
"It will lead to a more consistent and more unified implementation of the law throughout the country," Widmer-Schlumpf told a news conference.
The courts in the country's 26 different cantons currently have a certain autonomy in handing down sentences.
"They will no longer have the same scope of discretion," she added.
The counter-proposal seeks to ensure that possible expulsions are practicable and judicious and that they are within international laws.
The cabinet is also seeking to tighten regulations for residency permits, making them dependent on successful integration.
Applicants must respect law and order as well as the basic values of the constitution, according to the draft.
They also have to be willing to work and learn, which implies good knowledge of one of Switzerland's four national languages.
The rules also apply to spouses of foreign nationals who have moved to Switzerland.
The government plans met with a mixed reaction from the main political parties, organisations and experts.
The centre-left Social Democrats dismissed the government's counter-proposal as unnecessary and lacking clear rules, while the Greens criticised the government of acting outside sound judgement.
The rightwing People's Party denounced the counter-proposal as useless, saying the proposed measures would have no impact at all.
The two centre-right parties, the Radicals and the Christian Democrats, welcomed the government plans as a step in the right direction.
For its part the non-governmental Swiss Refugee Council said the government plans were a "bizarre mixture" of repressive measures and steps for better integration.
In their response during the consultation procedure, churches and employers organisations said the current law was sufficient if it was applied consistently.
Marc Specha, a Zurich-based lawyer specialising in the rights of immigrants, slammed the People's Party initiative as an violation of fundamental rights.
He told a public meeting last December that he would welcome a decision by parliament to declare the initiative invalid.
Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch and agencies
The initiative by the People' s Party calls for the automatic expulsion of criminal foreigners and foreign nationals who engaged in welfare fraud.
Campaigners collected the necessary signatures which were handed in 16 months ago.
The government presented a counter-proposal aimed at tightening rules against criminal foreigners. The draft was amended during the consultation procedure.
It foresees the expulsion for foreign nationals convicted of serious crimes and residence permits are made conditional on successful integration into Swiss society.
Both the initiative and the counter-proposal will be discussed by both chambers of parliament before voters will have the final say.
The debate over foreign criminals has been simmering for the last few years.
A number of homicides, notably a case in Ticino last year made national headlines.
The rightwing People's Party ran a successful election campaign accusing foreign criminals and using a poster depicting a black sheep in 2007.
Parliament began discussions on proposals to tighten criminal law earlier this month.
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