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Victims group demands tough justice

Should the state throw away the key? Keystone

Campaigners are urging the Swiss to vote in favour of locking up violent offenders for life.

This content was published on January 28, 2004 - 11:07

But the government says the proposals in the February 8 vote offer more than they can deliver and would be difficult to implement.

The people’s initiative was launched by a group of victims and families of victims, and has the backing of the rightwing People’s Party.

Those behind the people’s initiative want offenders found guilty of sexual and violent crimes to be handed lifelong sentences if they fail a one-off psychological assessment at the time of conviction.

They argue that felons who are judged to be a risk to society should be locked away for life.

“Victims of these offenders do not have a second chance,” Ulrich Schlüer of the Swiss People’s Party told swissinfo.

“We have to protect society from the risk of an offender repeating the same crime,” he added.

“Children, for example, should never have to face the same threat that other children have already faced.”

“Untreatable”

Supporters of a change to the law want the one-time psychological assessment to be carried out by two independent experts.

If those experts agreed that the offender was “untreatable”, there would be no chance of further tests.

The only possibility of overturning a decision would be if new scientific tests were introduced that could prove an offender could be “cured”.

While the government acknowledges that campaigners want to protect society from the risk of repeat violent offenders, it feels that a revision of the existing criminal law – due to come into force in 2006 – provides a better solution.

Human rights

It is also concerned that the proposed changes would undermine Switzerland’s commitment to international human rights treaties.

“The proposals do not contravene this country’s obligations to international law,” justice ministry official Heinrich Koller said.

“But if they were written into law they would present some difficulties in our relationship with the European Convention on Human Rights.

“The convention allows for the appraisal and assessment of offenders at regular intervals, whereas the proposals want to make sure that only takes place in specific circumstances.”

Koller argues that the one-time only assessment fails to recognise that a person can change over time, and could keep offenders in prison when they clearly no longer represented a threat – either because they were too old or physically disabled.

“It would mean an offender would no longer be locked up, but locked away for life,” he said.

“It would be against human dignity not to have regular assessments over time of a person’s suitability to be released.”

Lesson

During the 1980s and 90s a number of cases involving convicted murderers and rapists made the headlines in Switzerland.

They went on to commit similar crimes while out on weekend leave or after being released.

But the justice minister, Christoph Blocher, argues that prison authorities and the courts have learned from those two decades, with cantons checking and overhauling their rules for releasing offenders.

“As far as the government is concerned the mistrust of the prison authorities – which is implicit in the very motives of this initiative – is not warranted,” he said.

“The revised law offers a better and more complete alternative, and even within the existing law it’s clear that prison authorities and those responsible for assessing violent offenders have learned [from the mistakes of the past].”

Security

While the government insists that a basic failing of the proposals is that they fail to recognise that a person can change over time, supporters maintain they guarantee that society is safe from dangerous offenders, and restore basic rights.

“For me as a young woman it’s very important that we have the right to feel safe and secure,” People’s Party parliamentarian Jasmin Hutter told swissinfo.

“Every person who falls victim to an untreatable offender is one victim too many, and with this initiative we can stop them ever offending again.”

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

offenders

The people’s initiative was launched by a group of victims and families of victims.

They collected over 194,000 signatures – almost double the number required to submit an initiative.

The initiative calls for a single assessment of the risk an offender presents to society.

Parliament and the government have both rejected the proposals contained within the initiative.

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