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Swiss court to rule on police officers’ role in Black man’s death


By Emma Farge

LAUSANNE, Switzerland (Reuters) – A Swiss court is set to hand down a verdict on Thursday on six white police officers charged over a Black man’s death in a case that has raised questions about structural racism in Switzerland.

Mike Ben Peter, a 39-year-old Nigerian, suffered a fatal heart attack in 2018 after he was kicked and held face-down in a street in Lausanne during an arrest.

The prosecution has compared the case to that of George Floyd in the United States who died after an officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes in 2020.

The officers deny the charges of negligent homicide and are seeking their acquittal. Their lawyers dismiss any comparison with the Floyd case.

They each face a maximum sentence of three years in prison if convicted. Swiss privacy laws mean they cannot be named.

“Did the police activity cause the death? The experts say it was not the police intervention that caused it,” defence lawyer Jean-Emmanuel Rossel said during the week-long trial.

Simon Ntah, lawyer for the victim’s family, said it was an “insult to intelligence” to consider the death an accident.

But the public prosecutor leading the case against the officers on Monday dropped the charges against the officers saying they had merely “violated the rules of prudence”, Swiss broadcaster RTS said.

While technically possible under Swiss law, lawyers said that such a U-turn by a state prosecutor was almost unheard of. The court still has the ability to pronounce a verdict.

“This is extremely unusual and, for me personally, it confirms my concerns about the ability and willingness to prosecute cases involving police officers in Switzerland,” Ntah told Reuters.

Ben Peter’s death has led to protests calling for police reform. During proceedings, an officer on duty at court was replaced for wearing a thin blue line symbol which the prosecution alleged has a racist subtext but which supporters say symbolises solidarity with police.

A group of U.N. experts said last year there was systemic racism in Switzerland in a report that raised serious concerns about “excessive use of force and the expectation of impunity by police” and cited this case. A Swiss government-mandated study acknowledged racism was structural.

According to the indictment, the officers first noticed Ben Peter during a drug patrol after he collected a bag later shown to contain marijuana.

The indictment said he did not comply with police requests and the officers used pepper spray and knee kicks to the ribs and crotch to get him on the ground and handcuff him.

It said he continued to struggle as he was held face-down by officers for three minutes, until they noticed he appeared unconscious.

Ben Peter was later pronounced dead after a heart attack with multiple causes, the indictment said, including the fact that he was held on his stomach and subjected to stress but also his obesity.

(Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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