By Simon Bradley
Switzerland has taken a major step forward in tracking suspected war criminals with the creation of a special task force this year, campaigners say. Prosecutors have opened a number of cases linked to Switzerland.
They are homing in on two figures in particular: Khaled Nezzar, the former Algerian defence minister suspected of alleged civil war offences, and ex-Guatamalan police chief Erwin Sperisen, accused of human rights abuses.
Pressure from human rights groups such as the Geneva-based Track Impunity Always (Trial) and Amnesty International to get the authorities to assign sufficient resources to make use of far-reaching war crimes legislation seems to have paid off.
Since July a new International Criminal Law Competence Centre has been attached to the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, comprising two federal police investigators and three legal experts.
It’s small compared with the Dutch International Crimes Unit, which has over 30 experienced investigators. But it’s a significant step, say campaigners.
“Switzerland is finally taking its international obligations more seriously,” said Trial director Philip Grant.
In 2001 Switzerland ratified the Rome Statute treaty, which led to the setting up of the International Criminal Court. Under Swiss penal law, which was adapted and entered into force on January 1, 2011, the Swiss justice system can try people suspected of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide committed anywhere in the world.
The legal requirement that the accused has close ties to Switzerland – family or secondary residence – were dropped, so now anyone accused of serious war crimes who travels to Switzerland or plans to travel here can be subject to a criminal investigation.
The Nezzar affair is not the only high-profile case in the public eye.
Sperisen, the former head of Guatemala’s police force from 2004 to 2007, and a Swiss-Guatemalan dual national, was arrested on August 31 in Geneva, where he had been living with his family since 2007, on suspicion of involvement in extra-judicial killings and other human rights abuses in the Central American country.
The ex-police chief, who vehemently denies the accusations, spent Christmas in Geneva’s Champ-Dollon prison, where he is being held in custody until February 26 amid on-going investigations.
A warrant for his arrest was issued in Guatemala in August 2010, along with that of 18 other former officials, including the former interior minister, Carlos Vielmann, who fled to Spain, and deputy director of police investigations Javier Figueroa, who was granted refugee status in Austria.
“Eventually there might be three trials running at the same time in three different countries and possibly others in Guatemala,” said Grant.
Difficult Algerian case
The first “victim” of the new changes is Nezzar. The former Algerian defence minister travelled to Geneva in October last year for medical treatment.
Accused by Trial and two victims of serious international crimes, the 75-year-old was detained by Geneva’s justice authorities for questioning before later being released. He is reportedly now back in Algeria.
Last month the Swiss Federal Court rejected Nezzar’s claim that he could not be tried outside his country for crimes he allegedly committed during Algeria’s bloody civil war in the 1990s.
The historic decision from Switzerland’s highest court in theory clears the way for Nezzar to be tried in Switzerland. Swiss prosecutors now have the extremely complex task of gathering sufficient evidence where the alleged crimes were committed to present a case.
“There will never be cooperation from the Algerian authorities so it’s a very difficult case,” said Grant. “More and more victims are talking and willing to testify. You see their videos on Youtube, for example, but how do you access these people?”
“Scratching the surface”
Since a landmark sentence handed down by a Swiss military court in 2001 to Fulgence Niyonteze for participation in the Rwanda genocide, no one has been charged for international crimes in Switzerland.
So how many other suspected war criminals actually live in or pass through Switzerland?
“It’s impossible to answer that as there are no statistics on the question,” declared Prosecutor’s Office spokeswoman Jeannette Balmer.
But the new war crimes unit is not idle. It is currently handling eight cases linked to Switzerland involving foreign nationals, but only two are living here, added Balmer. These concern events in former Yugoslavia, North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.
Trial independently gathers information on specific cases from NGOs, diaspora victims’ groups or even private detectives, which it then hands over to the investigating authorities. Grant said the NGO had unearthed six cases but “we are only scratching the surface”.
He said experts had recently interviewed victims in a undisclosed country who had all pointed to “overwhelming” numbers of suspected war crime offenders living in Switzerland, Italy, France and Britain.
Figures for other countries are sketchy but last year it was disclosed that a special war crimes unit within the British immigration agency had recommended action against 495 individuals in the last five years, with 383 remaining at large.
Campaigners welcome the arrival of the new federal resources and say the people at the Swiss competence centre are motivated and keen to apply the law. But working procedures need improving, they argue.
Swiss law obliges federal asylum and prosecution bodies to communicate with each other; it should be automatic when there is a suspicion of crimes. But NGOs complain this does not happen systematically and it is impossible to check as the procedures are confidential.
International cooperation has also improved but agencies in different countries need to be better connected to share information, said Grant.
“Once it is accepted that there is a shared responsibility by states, politicians will have to give their investigations the necessary resources and in the next ten to 20 years this [kind of work] will develop into something that is widely accepted,” he concluded.