Update 12/25/14: I checked in recently with one of the former gang members we spoke to on The Sound of Ideas program in July. He told me things have been tough for him, and it’s hard to thrive given his difficult past. I produced an audio postcard with his thoughts:
Switzerland is a country with a gun tradition, both militarily and for sport. It has also faced high profile gun crimes in recent years. Just this week, pensioner Peter Kneubühl appeared in court for his 2010 shooting of a police officer after barricading himself in his home. And last week, a man in Daillon in the canton of Valais shot three people dead, and injured two others. That man’s weapons had been seized by police previously because he suffered a reported mental condition. Swiss gun laws and mindsets have evolved over the last two decades but the country still has a reputation for being comfortable with guns. This impression has been heard especially by some in the United States, as that nation faces a debate over guns following the Newtown shooting last month.
While Washington debates what to do about guns, some gun advocates are looking abroad for inspiration, to Switzerland. They say the Swiss have high gun ownership rates, low crime, and lots of freedom.
But some Swiss reject the comparison. After a long-weekend, Daniel Wyss’ gun shop in a village near the Swiss capital Bern, is buzzing with sportsmen and gun enthusiasts eager to re-arm.
Wyss said his customers are hunters, sportsmen, collectors, and folks who want to protect themselves. In that respect Swiss gun enthusiasts wouldn’t seem so different from those in the US.
But Jo Lang, vice president of the Swiss Green Party, said there is one big difference. Lang is a survivor of Switzerland’s worst shooting tragedy in 2001, when a gunman shot 14 people in a state legislature. And he’d like to see the difference remain…
Live debrief with Alex Helmick, WRS afternoon host: “Ten years ago today Switzerland was rocked by tragedy. Lone gunman Friedrich Leibacher disguised himself as a police officer, and marched into the Zug cantonal parliament building. In the second story Parliament meeting hall Leibacher fired dozens of rounds killing 14 people and injuring many others before killing himself.
The incident was the worst shooting in Swiss history, and led to the changes in government security and left perhaps a permanent impression on the Zug community. WRS’s Tony Ganzer was in Zug today. Now, it has been 10 years now since the Zug Massacre, as it is called. Is Zug still in mourning would you say? Could you tell walking through the city that this is 10 years after an attack of this magnitude?
Tony Ganzer: Well, Zug is picturesque, and the cantonal parliament is perched near the lake. Traffic and people carried on as you would expect on any other day, but there were two major external signs that this is still a community remembering. The first, was a collection of things at the parliament building the cantonal flag of Zug sitting at half-staff, lit candles were placed in a circle on the buildings steps. Fresh flowers were placed on a glass memorial outside the building.
The second sign was hard to hear at first. Many communities ring bells at the top of the hour but Zug, today at noon let them all ring out. The tone was soft at first, so I climbed into the old town, up a steep hill toward the Zug Castle.
Some of the most vigorous bell ringing sang from St. Oswald’s Catholic Church. A group of kids asked me what I was doing, and why the bells were ringing for what seemed to be forever. I told them it was in honor of the victims of the shooting 10 years ago. They said they understood.
AH: So even the kids at least knew of the attack 10 years ago. Could you assume then the population at large is at least aware of what’s happening today, I assume so?
TG: Well, for that question I turned to the man ringing St. Oswald’s bells, Markus Jeck.
He says this is very present for the people here. That attack is not completely forgotten. He says he walks to that building, and he looks around and he knows what happened there. And he thinks..that people will never forget.
Jeck rushed back to the church office after the bells subsided. But he thinks it is good they ring.
He says for him the bells..they’re machinery. They are something to alert people to religious services. But also they ring when someone has died, but also like now, to remember, with all the bells ringing to tell people something terrible happened. This is a remembrance of the those who were killed in the attack 10 years ago, he says. We do it as a reminder, in general, of the violence that day. All the bells ring out every year on this day for 15 minutes.
And with that Jeck continued sweeping the church grounds, but still conscious of what the day means to the community..
AH: And, Tony, at the parliament building itself, it was supposed to be open day for the public, a remembrance day for the public. What was the mood like there in the parliament building?
TG: The building as I said is perched by the lake, and near it..is a large bird pen, so bird song fills the area. Inside things are very quiet, though. A large bouquet is in the main meeting hall, a single rose was on the back table. A crucifix on the wall, small stained-glass portraits and the cherubs painted on the ceiling with Swiss flags give a peaceful air.
AH: Were there any people visiting?
TG: Well, a few. Some lawmakers had come in the morning, I was told, and some citizens. Standing near the hall was cantonal parliament president Wreni Vicky. And I spoke with her, and she says the Zug citizens are very close to this attack.
VICKY: The real Zuger Bevölkerung (people of Zug), they remember it very good. I can see it—I bekam (received) letters for the day now, or SMS, and E-mails, and they are very near to it.
TG: Vicky was a cantonal lawmaker in 2001, and was in the room during the attack. She says many things changed after that day.
VICKY: Yes, it changed quite a lot because now we have all the police. We have controls everywhere. It was the same year as Swissair grounding, and 9/11. I think it is not only the Attentat from Zug, who changed security, but it’s different since ’01.
TG: Attentat means “attack” in German. Vicky says it is true the attack pushed Swiss thinking from that of a small, safe nation, into one part of a bigger world.
VICKY: It’s different and I cannot…if you have been in such a room, life changes. For me it’s the life before the Attentat, and the life after the Attentat. And all people should know this: we have a good living, we are rich, we can afford everything. And you should be happier.
TG: But, she says, she is still coping with the effects of that day.
VICKY: Before, I didn’t have fear. And now, I’m sure, if you are in a room or a restaurant somewhere, it can happen, something. And I didn’t know this feeling before.
TG: That was Zug cantonal parliament president Wreni Vicky. But Alex, perhaps the most permanent sign of a changed Switzerland is at the door. The solid wooden door clicks shut with its strong, mechanical lock. And the automatic glass doors don’t open until the wooden one closes. All for security.
AH: Thank you, Tony.
TG: Thank you.
Earlier this year (2011), the mayor of Chiasso, in the canton of Ticino, wrote to the Federal Council in Bern to explain why the town didn’t want an asylum center anymore. He said it was because refugee crime was a burden. It was as much a plea for help as it was a provocation. On the border with Italy, some see Chiasso and its 8,000 residents on the front line of a growing Swiss angst over asylum seekers. WRS’s Tony Ganzer reports: (scroll down for an update from 2013)
Tiny jets of water fire from a fountain embedded in one of Chiasso’s central squares. Diverse groups of young men sit casually staring at the ground, then at passers-by, then at each other. Some laugh, some smoke, and according to town vice mayor Roberta Pantani Tettamanti, some have bothered local businesses.
TETTAMANTI: “We receive some complaining from people working in Chiasso. Also from banks, as often some asylum seekers in front of their doors. And you can understand that people coming into a bank, maybe they are afraid.”
Tettamanti sits in Chiasso’s pink city building, a few blocks from the fountain and bank. A pair of federally funded, private security guards patrol outside, in the shadow of the San Vitale church. Tettamanti says refugees from Lampedusa have disrupted the city.
TETTAMANTI: “A couple of times a month you see some fights. They fight between themselves because of drunkenness—this is a big problem with them, because they don’t have to do anything during the day.”
Chiasso has always had asylum seekers, for at least 60 years. From Milan, through Como, Chiasso is the first Swiss town on the southern rail line. Police commander Nicolas Poncini says the problem is not refugees in general, or the asylum center, rather the motivations of some of the refugees.
PONCINI: “We had waves of Kosovo, for example, a few years ago, but everything went smooth, from a crime point of view of course. Now we have many Nigerian refugees, maybe from two or three years now. Most of them came here very well organized and they have clear goals to deal with dopes and drugs and so.”
Poncini says the problems are cyclical: a few months flooded by refugees, a few months without. And he is adamant—he and his 35 officers don’t think all refugees are criminal, or all Nigerians, or all Libyans. But an increase in crime was evident.
PONCINI: “This is caused by the second wave of refugees which came this year—this is the north African refugees who came to Chiasso. And, uh, they were very aggressive, and had strange habits. I mean, uh, they don’t care about peeing in the streets, or stealing, or drinking.”
A few meters from the steps of San Vitale church sit two black men on a concrete wall. Both are dressed casually—jeans, polo shirts. Both came from North Africa, through Italy, into Switzerland. One of the men, from Nigeria, said poor conditions in Italy pushed him North.
NIGERIAN MAN: “They say that they have to help asylum seeker in the land of Europe, but they don’t take proper care for us. As me, I am a young boy, for me, now, I am supposed to focus my life, maybe study in school, thinking about a brighter future to live. But they leave every black man in the street.”
The man sitting next to him came through Lampedusa 2 years ago from Libya. He’s been in Chiasso two weeks, waiting for more details on his asylum request. But all he expects to get in Switzerland is time.
LIBYAN MAN: “They are don’t giving somebody document. They really spend, give some time; they give us three months, four months to stay. After that they deport us back to Italy. That is just everything. We are just suffering. We need a better life to live.”
The men complain of benefits and conditions in Switzerland, but also of racism. They say police often target refugees, and police commander Poncini doesn’t deny it. But, he says, only with probable cause.
PONCINI: “We don’t have to see Chiasso as…Tijuana or some (inaudible). We have this refugee center, we have this cyclic problem who comes and goes. We have no, no racist population in Chiasso.”
PONCINI: “But we have to keep the thing safe, and we don’t want to have people which are coming here already organized to bring crime in Chiasso.”
Chiasso has tried implementing fixes of its own, for example starting a refugee worker program, but such things are under federal jurisdiction. Vice Mayor Roberta Pantani Tettamanti says between local, cantonal and federal officials all with different perspectives and duties, its complicated. She says Chiasso’s situation may not have been forgotten in Bern, but perhaps misunderstood.
Two years later (as of 2013) the situation in Chiasso appeared to have improved. WRS’S Tony Ganzer returned to the Italian border to see what had changed:
PONCINI: “Well we have Denner here. The Denner is one of the main supplies of hard alcohol.”
Chiasso police commander Nicolas Poncini tours the hang-outs and trouble spots for some asylum seekers in his town. Crime rates are cyclical, as are the numbers of asylum seekers at the local center, but he says one constant problem has been with drunkenness.
PONCINI: “Sometimes real drunk people go back to the center, and the center doesn’t accept them anymore, because they don’t want problem in the center with drunk people. They are drunk, the center doesn’t accept them, the canton police don’t want to put them in jail, so we don’t know what to do with them.”
Poncini says Chiasso hit a peak two years ago, as asylum seekers hit the Ticino border after traveling from North Africa through Italy. Since then, and since Chiasso’s letter to the federal government complaining about crime, added private security and refugee worker programs have eased tension here.
PONCINI: “Right now today, as we are speaking, there is no stress at all…not yet. If we didn’t have this [asylum] registration center of course we would have no problem at all. This registration center is not an advantage for Chiasso, definitely. It is like a town having a nuclear central, or something, it is there, no one wants it.”
PANTANI: “It always depends on the types of asylum seekers, but anyway the situation at the moment is better.”
Roberta Pantani was vice mayor two years ago, and she has since been elected to the National Council.
PANTANI: “The changement was that I was in the National Council, and in that commission where we spoke about these work programs. I brought the experience of Chiasso. Everything is going better now it’s better not to say it too loud, because you never know.”
One part of Chiasso’s success has been a voucher program, giving asylum seekers coupons instead of cash to dissuade alcohol abuse. Pantani also points to a work program as having an impact. A dozen or two asylum seekers can volunteer to work in town, and interact with the community—interaction that police and politicians say is important.
MOHAMAD (sic): “My name is Mohamad Adryss from Pakistan…[in] Switzerland 17 days.”
Mohamad Adryss says he is an Ahmadiyaa Muslim from Pakistan, seeking asylum in Switzerland. He stands talking to another asylum seeker who is part of the town work program. Adryss’ acquaintance did not want to be interviewed.
MOHAMAD: “I don’t know Switzerland rules. Maybe my transfer, or other interviews. I don’t know I am allowed to stay here. I pray to God am allowed to stay.”
BOLZ: “The situation of Chiasso is particular because it is a location of one of the centers of reception of asylum seekers.”
Susanne Bolz is the head of the legal department at the Swiss Refugee Council. She acknowledges the successes seen in Chiasso, but ahead of a referendum on tougher asylum laws, she isn’t sure all measures seen in there can be broadened nationally, like those focusing on alcoholism.
BOLZ: “I think that this makes sense to ease the current situation, but of course it is not something you could apply as a general rule to everybody. We should not forget that most asylum seekers behave appropriately and correctly, and so it’s not proportionate to punish everybody for mistakes made by few.”
Back in Chiasso, police commander Poncini recognizes that crime two years ago was an extreme, that could not be dealt with for an extended period.
PONCINI: “It would be like the far West here. Because at some time it became very tricky. We had these North Africans which were very tough people, hard drinking, violent. If we had just families, like we had maybe at the Kosovo time or years ago, that would be really not a problem at all.”
Poncini would like to see changes to the penal code to allow his officers to punish asylum seekers who break the law. Right now he says he can do very little. But any change to the penal code would be slow going, and before that could happen, voters on June 9 will decide on whether emergency measures for tougher rules and other reforms should stay on the books.
The headline of the Tages Anzeiger newspaper was provocative: “Wanted by Police: Black men.” Those words were prompted by a report by Zurich’s ombudswoman, who fields public complaints about city services. The report highlighted a handful of cases of discrimination or racial profiling. WRS’s Tony Ganzer reports.
On a Sunday afternoon three black men, two in their thirties and another in his 60s, stand in Zurich’s train station, drinking beers. Three police approach the men and ask for their IDs, asking questions for 5 or so minutes, before leaving. The men are Eritrean, and say that happens all the time—“a normal check” one of them says. But the city’s ombudswoman Claudia Kaufmann says more and more people are complaining such checks are discriminatory.
Kaufmann says it has been observed for years that young, black males have more often than others been questioned, searched or detained in Zurich even if they showed identification, and were not under investigation. Though she doesn’t give specifics, the number of such cases increased into double digits last year.
Kaufmann says if someone shows ID, and police see there is no reason to continue questioning a person, the police should return the ID and leave. But in many cases the police continue anyway, handcuffing people or searching them. And she says that is not acceptable.
Marco Cortesi is a Zurich police spokesman. He says it is absolutely not systematic, that dark-skinned persons are questioned and police act on individual cases.
Cortesi says the police are not racists, and they don’t condone racism. Police are schooled in such issues before going into the field. He says the drug trade is flourishing in certain districts, controlled by mostly black Africans, and in those districts darker skinned individuals are questioned more often than in other places.
DANIEL MÖCKLI: “The problem with racial profiling is not racism.”
Daniel Möckli is a senior lecturer in public law at the University of Zurich.
MÖCKLI: “Racial profiling is a structural problem and the first reaction of police to the report was to say ‘our police officers are not racists.’ Well, that’s not the issue. Even if the police do not intentionally target ethnic minorities there may be racial profiling.”
Möckli says the ombudswoman’s report only named a limited number of cases, which is a first in terms of specific examples of possible discrimination. But it doesn’t show how big a problem this is.
MÖCKLI: “In the United Kingdom the police have a duty to record the race or ethnicity of the persons they are stopping. So there you can actually tell you are [for example] 5 times more likely of being stopped if you are Asian, or black. And we don’t have that in Switzerland.”
The most comprehensive look at police methods in Switzerland came in 2007 in a report from Amnesty International. Denise Graf authored the study, and is the organization’s coordinator for human rights issues in Switzerland.
She says she worked with members of the black community to gauge the extent of discrimination problems, and brought her findings to two police departments.
GRAF: “In 2005 and 6 the police of Basel made a very good sensibilization [sensitivity]campaign and the success of this training was really visible for us, and also for the black community. So we proposed for the police of Zurich to do the same thing, but unfortunately they haven’t really done.”
Graf is now involved in a Zurich working group for racial profiling issues, but she says attention from police leadership, along with concrete proposals for improvement are slow coming. City ombudswoman Claudia Kaufmann says Switzerland’s laws are weak when it comes to anti-discrimination. But she says slowly, there is a realization that social issues dealt with in other countries, are now being faced in Switzerland.