Two years ago, a Nigerian asylum seeker died during a forced deportation attempt from Switzerland. Now, the prosecution has dismissed the case, leaving nobody responsible for the young man’s death. Instead of re-assessing the deportation system, Swiss authorities prefer ignorance.
Six weeks of hunger strike had weakened Joseph Chiakwa, when nine policemen entered his cell at Zurich’s deportation prison in the afternoon of March 17, 2010. The cops body-searched the Nigerian asylum seeker, tied his hands and put a boxing helmet on his head. In a nearby building, policemen constrained Chiakwa’s arms and legs and tied the 29-year-old to a special wheelchair. For a long time, signs of discomfort were ignored. As a doctor finally arrived, Chiakwa had already died.
Joseph Chiakwa was subjected to a so-called ‘Level-IV’ deportation attempt. Having spent about a year in the deportation prison, Ibrahim Moses (name changed) says that he got nervous each time rumours of upcoming special flights made rounds. “You’re afraid because in there you don’t have anyone to fight for you,” the West African asylum seeker explains. He witnessed how several inmates were forcefully deported.
“Usually the prison guards ask you to come to the second floor, without letting you know why. There they make you wait. Suddenly and by surprise, policemen overpower you.” Usually, the victim is tied up and put in a separate cell, Moses tells. “Later they come for you; six or seven cops for one person. They make you dress (in) special clothes, handcuff you and take you to another building,” the young West African says. “There they tie you up like a parcel before carrying you to the plane.”
Moses himself faced a ‘Level-II’ deportation attempt. In this scenario, the handcuffed deportee is escorted by two policemen on a scheduled flight. “I resisted on the way to the plane,” Moses says. A few years ago, even totally shackled people were occasionally deported on scheduled flights; so-called ‘Level-III’ deportations. These don’t happen any more and so Moses was taken back to prison. “If you refuse being deported on a normal flight, they may put you as a parcel on a special flight the next time,” the West African asylum seeker explains.
In 2011, Switzerland sent back 6,439 persons by air. In all 165 of these were ‘Level-IV’ cases on 33 special flights. In comparison to previous years, the number of such deportations has dropped, but Amnesty International’s refugee coordinator Denise Graf says that still many ‘Level-IV’ deportations could be avoided. “They should be absolutely exceptional,” she says, adding that preparation is often insufficient.
“In most cases, the total shackling of deportees is absolutely disproportionate,” Graf points out. She explains that ‘Level-IV’ deportations carry risks and harm the deportees’ human dignity. Amnesty demands that before any deportation attempt, a final, extensive conversation has to be held with the deportees. “The reasons that make a person resist deportation are many and often the problem could be solved easily.”
Also, Graf refers to the principle of proportionality: “The police is obliged to always choose the least harming option. However, we observe that very often the harshest possible measures are applied.” She says that in Chiakwa’s case, nearly all police interventions were escalating.
In the wake of Joseph Chiakwa’s death in 2010, the Swiss government paid 50,000 Swiss francs (55,000 dollars) to the victim’s family. “As a humanitarian gesture” and “neither compensation, nor an admission of guilt,” it stated. The family however was primarily interested in a serious investigation in Chiakwa’s death.
Two forensic evaluations ordered by the prosecution of the canton of Zurich identified malfunctions of the victim’s heart. “I don’t find them plausible,” comments Viktor Györffy, lawyer for Chiakwa’s family. “When it comes to defining the exact heart disease leading to the death, the evaluations are even contradictory.”
Based on an independent evaluation by a cardiologist, Györffy argues that relevant causes were ignored by the prosecution. “According to the cardiologist, Chiakwa’s death was caused by the hunger strike combined with the immense stress during the ‘Level-IV’ deportation attempt,” the lawyer says. He adds that even if a heart disease was concurrently causative, those responsible were culpable. “Nobody who’s lost a relative in such a way would under these circumstances accept the dismissal of the case,” says Györffy, who has filed an appeal against the prosecution’s decision.
The lawyer is supported by the human rights group ‘augenauf’. Its speaker Rolf Zopfi regards the prosecution’s investigation as biased. “Isn’t it remarkable that a 29-year-old dies in the hands of the police and a heart disease is supposedly the sole cause, while all other factors are regarded as unfortunate and ultimately irrelevant?” he asks.
After Chiakwa’s death in March 2010, Switzerland temporarily halted special deportation flights. But by June, all but those to Nigeria were resumed. The latter recommenced in January 2011, after bilateral problems were solved. Soon however, Swiss authorities faced criticism again, as the national TV station documented how policemen hit a Nigerian asylum seeker during a deportation attempt, while the police had stated that the concerned flight was carried out “without any incidents.”
It is not just human rights organisations demanding independent monitoring of forced deportations. Since January 2011, Switzerland is obliged by the European Union’s ‘Return Directive’ to “provide for an effective forced return monitoring system.” No such system has been implemented, even though Swiss authorities had long been aware of the directive’s upcoming adoption. Currently, only some deportation flights are monitored by observers who had already run a six-month pilot project for the Federal Office for Migration.
Amnesty’s Denise Graf says that transparency and independence are fundamental for any monitoring system: “The observers can’t just be another element inside the black box.” Rolf Zopfi of ‘augenauf’ says that the monitoring pilot project doesn’t question the proportionality of the system. His organisation considers ‘Level-IV’ deportations fundamentally dangerous, inhuman and disproportional and therefore categorically rejects them.