Up until 1981, the Swiss authorities imprisoned thousands of people who were not tried for any crime, under a procedure known as administrative detention.
Bellechasse detention centre in Fribourg – Photo B Bachmann.
60,000 were imprisoned, often for years at a time, in this way according to a recent estimate published by RTS.
Referred to as a kind of compulsory welfare, people, including men, women and children, were imprisoned for behaviour that was deemed socially unacceptable at the time, such as alcoholism, being an illegitimate mother, a rebel, a beggar, gay, or being judged work shy or unable to support oneself. Most had no legal defense and no access to a fair trial.
Deprived of their freedom, some were forced to work for no pay, while others were abused and in some cases sterilized.
Since 2014, an Independent Commission of Experts (ICES) has been investigating this dark part of Switzerland’s history.
Some victims have been interviewed (see video below), and letters and other documents describing what happened have been uncovered and brought to light.
The prevailing attitude at the time was, that in order to “protect society”, individuals who were deemed to be behaving in unacceptable ways needed to be removed from society, held in a closed environment and rehabilitated, before being released and re-integrated into the general community.
Some were targeted directly by the authorities while others were reported to the authorities by family members, for example for alcoholism or violence.
One of the interviewees in the video above recounts cases of young escapees being reported to the police by members of the public. In general society knew what was going on, he said, suggesting a collective responsibility for what happened. Others spoke of how the experience left trauma that they would never recover from and how they’d stayed quiet about their imprisonment for decades for fear it would affect their job prospects or lead to ostracisation and assumptions of guilt.
Across Switzerland, administrative detainees were held in 648 facilities, which have been categorized into juvenile correction facilities, alcohol rehabilitation facilities, prisons, psychiatric institutions, forced labour institutions, labour colonies, municipal poorhouses and special needs facilities.
In addition, the facilities were divided along religious lines: Protestant, Catholic and interdenominational. The interdenominational ones were relatively large and mostly run by the state. Protestant and Catholic facilities tended to be privately funded.
Detention procedures, developed by the cantons based on a mix of cantonal laws and the Swiss Civil Code, varied widely from canton to canton as did those for release. Some were released unconditionally while other were released on probation, often ending up getting sent back. For example an alcoholic could be sent back if caught drinking again.
The practice, which typically happened without court involvement, violated Switzerland’s fundamental constitutional principle of separation of powers.
Public exhibitions of the commission’s findings will be held across Switzerland during March, May and June 2019.
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