Protests force Switzerland to grapple with its own ‘George Floyd’ case

George Floyd's shocking death in police custody in the US has sparked belated soul-searching in Switzerland over the death of a Nigerian man two years ago in Lausanne in similar circumstances.

Protests force Switzerland to grapple with its own ‘George Floyd’ case
Protests in the Swiss city of Lausanne. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

The images of Floyd's last agonising moments have circled the globe, sparking massive protests worldwide.

The 46-year-old black man died in Minneapolis on May 25 after a white officer, who has since been charged with murder, pressed his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

In contrast, the death of Mike Ben Peter, a 37-year-old Nigerian man, in Lausanne in March 2018 received little attention beyond the western Swiss city, where it sparked a small demonstration against police violence.

But the global outcry over Floyd's death has pushed the Swiss to re-examine their own strikingly similar case.

Ben Peter died following a violent arrest after he refused a police search.

IN PICTURES: Powerful images from anti-racism protests across Switzerland

In the encounter, involving six police officers, he was pinned to the ground, on his stomach, according to his family's lawyer Simon Ntah. 

'Enormous similarities' 

“He was held in positional asphyxia” for several minutes, Ntah told AFP. Ben Peter died in hospital a few hours later after suffering a heart attack.

The lawyer said he believed there were “enormous similarities” with Floyd's killing, adding though that the situation was likely “a bit more serious in Ben Peter's case, due to the violence that preceded him being pinned down on his stomach”.

But the main difference, he said, “is that in the US case, the facts were filmed and we can thereby see exactly how the knee was placed on the neck.”

Two years on, Ben Peter's death is still under investigation. In a coincidence of timing, Swiss medical examiners were questioned about their findings in the Ben Peter case just hours after Floyd's death.

They are due to face further questioning before a likely trial, at the end of this year or in 2021.

Landing in the midst of the Floyd outrage, the medical examiners' testimony sent shockwaves through the wealthy Alpine nation.

Protests in the Swiss city of Lausanne. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Leading newspapers declared that “Switzerland too has its George Floyd”, while protesters at anti-racism demonstrations in several Swiss cities shouted the two men's names in unison.

“Fight for Mike Ben Peter”, read one of the protest posters in Lausanne.

Odile Pelet, a lawyer representing one of the police officers in the case, meanwhile rejects the “conflation” of the facts in the two cases, stressing that the autopsy formally excluded that Ben Peter died from asphyxiation.

“The images of George Floyd's arrest show that the situations are absolutely not comparable,” she told AFP.

“Never did any of the six police officers place their knee on Ben Peter's neck.”

The medical examiners concluded that a range of factors contributed to his death, including stress, obesity and heart problems.

They also mentioned the position he was held in, on his stomach, she acknowledged, “but without being able to really determine what role it may have played in his death”.

Jean-Christophe Sauterel, head of the regional police force in the canton of Vaud, where Lausanne is located, meanwhile said he could not comment on a case still under investigation.

Similar to #MeToo 

But he stressed that in Switzerland, police can apply pressure to a person's arms or shoulders to bring them under control, but putting pressure on the head or neck is “totally forbidden”.

In recent demonstrations in Switzerland against police brutality and racism, Ben Peter has not been the only name mentioned alongside Floyd.

Protesters and Swiss media recall that Herve Manbdundu and Lamine Fatty also died during or following police interventions in Vaud in 2017 and 2016 respectively.

“In the same way that the #MeToo movement has opened the way for very, very positive developments, there is today a movement of awareness raising when it comes to police racism,” Ntah said.

Many observers, including Amnesty International, meanwhile maintain that systemic racism does not exist in Swiss police forces.

But “racial profiling unfortunately remains a widespread police practice,” Nadia Boehlen, a spokeswoman for Amnesty's Swiss chapter, told AFP.

Frederic Maillard, an analyst of policing practices, also said Switzerland does not have a problem with “racist and violent police”, pointing out that the hierarchy demands a “measured” approach.

However, he warned, as elsewhere, police have a tendency to cover for colleagues' bad behaviour, and “there is too little behavioural training to prevent abuses and excesses on the ground”.

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Swiss police clear months-long quarry protest

Swiss police on Tuesday swooped down on environmental protesters who have been occupying a quarry owned by Franco-Swiss cement giant LafargeHolcim for months to protest against its plans to expand the site.

Swiss police clear months-long quarry protest
Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

A large contingent of police, many in riot gear, descended on the Mormont site in La Sarraz in the western canton of Vaud early Tuesday, asking the some 200 activists to leave or be removed by force.

The activists set up camp at the site in October, warning of the environmental and ecological consequences of Lafarge-Holcim’s plans to expand the quarry.

The company and the La Sarraz municipality had filed legal petitions to remove the activists, and the police operation came after the protesters’ legal appeals were rejected.

The move to clear the outer limits of the camp went off peacefully, but as the officers went towards a farmhouse at the centre, some protesters threw rocks and threw fireworks, an AFP photographer said.

“It is a high-anxiety situation. But we want to stick it out as long as possible,” one of the demonstrators told the ATS-Keystone news agency shortly before being evacuated by police.

The regional police said one police officer had been slightly wounded but none of the activists were injured.

By evening, police had detained 29 people, 12 of whom were taken into custody in nearby Lausanne.

A number of the activists remained up in trees or on the farmhouse roof, singing and shouting slogans against LafargeHolcim.