Switzerland Weighs 'Zero Tolerance' Approach To Forced Marriages
'Coercion' is already a crime under Swiss law. But a new bill coming up before parliament would single out coercion in the form of forced marriages. Not surprisingly, debate over the issue is bound to be highly charged -- and about much
ZURICH -- Lawmakers in Switzerland will soon be considering a bill that criminalizes forced marriage. Supporters of the measure say such marriages are "incompatible with Swiss culture." Some critics, however, worry that the bill is less about protecting victims of forced marriage than it is about targeting Muslims. The bill goes before the Nationalrat, the lower house of Switzerland's Federal Assembly, in the upcoming spring session.
Under the new proposal, anyone "who uses violence or threatens unpleasant consequences' to force another into marriage would be committing a criminal offense. Technically speaking, such actions are already against the law in Switzerland, where perpetrators can be prosecuted for "coercion," a more general category. Authors of the new bill are hoping to clamp down even harder by making forced marriage a separate, specific crime that carries prison sentences of up to five years. In less severe instances, perpetrators would be fined.
Lucerne national councilor Ruedi Lustenberger of the Christian Democratic People's Party of Switzerland (CVP) doesn't think the proposal goes far enough. "Forced marriages are simply not reconcilable with our culture," he says, adding that he would support a minimum of two years' prison for parents who force their offspring into marriage against the latter's express will. This would mean that those without Swiss citizenship would face automatic expulsion from Switzerland. Current practice is that any non-Swiss sentenced to more than a year in prison has their residency permit taken away. Foreigners with a Swiss spouse lose their residence permits if they are sentenced to two years of prison – hence Lustenberger's suggested minimum two-year sentence.
Lustenberger can count on the support of the conservative Swiss People's Party, the Liberals, and Conservative Democratic Party, but not of the Free Democratic Party, or left-wing and green parties. "A minimum sentence of two years would limit the judge's margin of discretion too much," says Solothurn national councilor Kurt Fluri of the Free Democratic Party. Fluri doesn't buy Lustenberger's line that forced marriage is irreconcilable with Swiss culture. "So is theft," Fluri says.
Marc Spescha, a lawyer specialized in immigration issues, questions whether creating a separate criminal offence for forcing someone to marry would have anything more than symbolic value. He points out that charges are hardly ever brought in Switzerland. However, the National Council's proposed measures also include ways of making more effective investigation possible such as having civil registrar offices follow up applications for marriage licenses in cases of doubt.
A 2006 study estimated the number of forced marriages in Switzerland to be 17,000, with a third of the victims minors.
Read the full story in German by Fabian Renz
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