Savage crimes raise questions over Swiss DNA testing laws

Should Switzerland lift restrictions on detailed DNA testing in criminal cases? The question is once again on the political agenda after a personal plea from the partner of the woman murdered with her sons in Rupperswil.

Savage crimes raise questions over Swiss DNA testing laws
Photo: Caroline Davis

Under the 2004 genetic testing act, Swiss law allows DNA found at crime scenes to be analyzed and compared against DNA on file to establish a match.

But unlike in some other countries, Swiss investigators are not allowed to test the coding strand of DNA – that is, the strand that gives information on personal characteristics such as hair colour, eye colour, build, age and even any illnesses the person may have, such as diabetes.

Switzerland’s restrictions on DNA testing hit the headlines after a violent rape near Lucerne in July last year which left the 26-year-old female victim paralyzed.

In October police carried out DNA tests on 372 men in the area to compare against DNA taken from the victim’s clothes at the scene.

The testing – which individuals have the right to refuse – focused on people who had similar characteristics to the description given by the victim of her attacker.

However, should the DNA found at the scene have been analyzed for personal characteristics, this could have narrowed down the search for the attacker, who has still not been caught.  

As a result of the case, in December MP Albert Vitali proposed a motion to modify Swiss law to allow the testing of coding DNA.

The issue returned to the limelight on Wednesday when Swiss-German television channel Rundschau made public a letter sent to Swiss justice minister Simonetta Sommaruga last month from the partner of Carla Schauer, the woman murdered with her two teenage sons and son’s girlfriend in their home in Rupperswil in December.

In it, he appealed for genetic profiling be used in the case, reported news agency ATS.

The response, made three days before a 33-year-old local man was finally arrested for the crime, five months after it was committed, did not explain why Switzerland does not authorize DNA profiling, said ATS.

Following the two cases the political climate is more favourable than ever towards changing the law, reported the news agency.

Vitali’s bill has already been accepted by the lower house of parliament and is awaiting discussion by the senate.

But not everyone is convinced, with some fearing the state could build a database of personal characteristics that would put people under suspicion unduly should they happen to have the same eye colour as a criminal.  

And personal data does not always bring certainty, Basel data protection specialist Beat Rudin told broadcaster SRF, since everyone can change their appearance.

Speaking to daily Le Matin, Olivier Guéniat, head of Neuchâtel police, raised a further issue. “DNA can reveal an illness like diabetes and lead investigators to look into the purchase of insulin in pharmacies,” he said.

“But a suspect might not want that information divulged, or may not even know it himself.”

DNA profiling should be reserved for the most serious crimes and decided case by case by a court or ethics body, he added.

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FACT CHECK: Do foreigners commit more violent crimes than the Swiss?

Around 25 percent of the Swiss population is of foreign origin. Is the crime rate really higher among them?

FACT CHECK: Do foreigners commit more violent crimes than the Swiss?

Crime rates among foreign residents is a frequent political talking point in Switzerland, particularly among the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP). 

Police in Zurich were forced to provide the nationality of all offenders after an SVP-supported referendum in January 2021 required them to do so

However, new statistics show that most crimes in Switzerland are committed by foreign nationals, including those of a violent nature.

Foreigners — including permanent residents, asylum seekers and tourists — commit more offences with a violent nature than native Swiss, according to data published by the Federal Statistical Office (FSO) in October 2021.

Of the 270 attempted homicides registered in Switzerland in 2020, 99 — almost 33 percent — were committed by Swiss people. The other cases are attributed to foreign nationals.

The FSO also found that Swiss citizens were responsible for less than half of the cases in which a serious bodily injury was inflicted on a victim: 317 out of the total of 712 registered acts, which translates to 45 percent; the remaining 55 percent of these crimes were committed by foreigners.

In both cases this is a higher percentage than that of foreigners as a part of the Swiss population. 

According to Switzerland’s Federal Office of Statistics, foreigners made up 25.1 percent of the population at the end of 2020. While this figure does not include tourists, it is still higher than the 33 percent and 55 percent figures listed above. 

READ MORE: Where in Switzerland do all the international residents live?

The study didn’t altogether absolve the Swiss.

“Foreigners commit violent crimes more often, but that doesn’t mean that the Swiss don’t do the same”, Baier said.

“There are many Swiss who think they have a right to hit anyone who looks at them in a wrong way”.

For instance, in the past six years, serious physical injuries have been inflicted by Swiss people more often than by foreign nationally, especially among those under 24 year of age, FSO reported.

In 2020, nearly half of all crimes were committed by Swiss people; however, these figures have to be put in perspective: since foreign residents constitute only around a quarter of the total population, an above-average number of offenses were committed by foreigners, even among young suspects.

Why do foreigners have a higher rate of violent crime in Switzerland?

There are two explanations why people of foreign origin resort to violence more often that their Swiss counterparts.

According to Dirk Baier, violence researcher at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences, the lower level of income and education among foreign residents is one of the reasons.

“This economic disadvantage can lead to a corresponding reaction: what you cannot buy, you can steal”, he told Swiss news outlet 20 Minutes.

Baier said that these factors were far more important than if someone was a foreigner or not. 

“If you consider young people who have roughly the same attitudes and social conditions, you no longer see any differences in the violent behaviour of Swiss and foreigners”.

Living conditions of these economically disadvantaged groups is also a contributing factor.

“They live in smaller apartments and often with several siblings. Those who spend a lot of time in public space are also more likely to get into conflicts that can escalate into violence”.

READ MORE: IN NUMBERS: Which Swiss cities have the highest crime rates?

Baier added that “the increased propensity for violence among foreigners has nothing to do with biology or genes. It is created by external circumstances – and consequently something can be done about it”.

This is echoed by statements from the Swiss government on crime rates of all forms (i.e. not just violent crime)

“The differences between foreigners and Swiss are relatively small when one takes into account the different age and gender structures. If one only considers the resident population (i.e. leaves out asylum seekers and tourists or travellers passing through), the differences are almost completely absent.”

How can this be prevented or curbed?

One way to counteract this trend, Baier said, is to introduce children with a migration background to the education system at an early stage, for example through language lessons.

“Anyone who understands and communicates in the language of the country in which they live will be less likely to resort to violence”.

There are also other social-cultural factors at play.

“This includes the family situation in which someone grows up. If he or she has  a form of upbringing that is characterised by the dominance of the father who uses violence himself, the child is socialised accordingly”, Baier noted.

“An honour to be defended or the protection of the family also made a number of people of foreign origin react more quickly to aggressive stimuli”, he added.

Baier said the government could do more, but was often held back by a cultural reluctance to intervene in family matters. 

“Switzerland could still do a lot here, the reluctance to interfere in family matters is still very great.”

READ MORE: Why do foreigners ‘commit more violent crimes’ than the Swiss?

What nationalities are most implicated in Swiss crime statistics?

People from these 10 countries committed the most crimes, FSO found:

1. Portugal: 1014

2. Italy :866

3. Other nationalities: 827

4. Kosovo: 656

5. Germany: 589

6. Turkey: 435

7. France: 398

8. Serbia and Montenegro: 385

9. North Macedonia: 328

10. Spain: 289