Appeal confirms acquittal of six police in Swiss 'George Floyd' case

Activists held up banners outside the criminal appeals court in Renens, western Switzerland, as six police officers were acquitted over the death of Mike Ben Peter (Robin MILLARD)
Activists held up banners outside the criminal appeals court in Renens, western Switzerland, as six police officers were acquitted over the death of Mike Ben Peter (Robin MILLARD)

A Swiss appeals court confirmed Monday the acquittal of six police officers charged over the death of a Nigerian man following a heavy-handed arrest, in a case that drew comparisons to George Floyd.

As with the lower court verdict a year ago acquitting the officers of negligent homicide in the case of Mike Ben Peter, Monday's verdict sparked demonstrations outside the courthouse.

Around 80 people in front of the court in Renens, outside Lausanne in western Switzerland, chanted: "Black lives matter!", "Justice for Mike", and "Police kill, the judiciary acquits!"

Ben Peter, 39, died following a violent arrest after he refused a police drug search near Lausanne railway station in early 2018.

In the encounter with the six police officers, he was pinned to ground on his stomach. He died in hospital a few hours later after suffering a heart attack.

His death initially received little attention, but the global outcry over Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020 placed a bigger spotlight on the Swiss case.

- Reliance on forensic evidence -

During the first trial in June last year, a court in Lausanne ruled that the six officers involved could not be found guilty of negligent homicide.

After three days of hearings last week at the cantonal appeals court in Renens, three judges confirmed the lower court ruling, acquitting the officers of negligent homicide.

They also acquitted them on additional charges of abusing their authority, requested by the lawyer of Ben Peter's family, Simon Ntah.

Ben Peter's family sat across the courtroom from the six defendants and their lawyers to hear the verdict, which took more than an hour and 20 minutes to deliver in a packed courtroom.

As during the first trial, the judges agreed with the conclusion reached by forensic experts that it was impossible to say for certain that Ben Peter died due to the police intervention.

"The court rejects the appeal of the complainant and releases the police officers from the charge," the president of the court said.

"The question of systemic racism is not pertinent in judging this matter," the judges determined.

They said the forensic evidence was "clear and convincing", adding: "The cause of his death is due to multiple factors."

Ben Peter "never gave up struggling... with fierce resistance" to his arrest, they said.

"We cannot blame the police for anything. The arrest was justified, legitimate and proportionate."

- Widow's quest for justice -

"Mike must get justice, no matter what. We still move forward," his widow Bridget Efe told reporters outside the court.

"They know that they did wrong. They know what they did.

"Killing my husband, making my children fatherless, and they will go home to their various homes and live happy with their children? Never.

"Justice will be served for my husband."

Her lawyer Ntah did not say whether the family would appeal to the higher federal courts.

Christian Favre, the lawyer for the first police officer who intervened with Ben Peter, said the court had put challenging questions to the defendants.

"The verdict which is rendered today -- much more developed than the lower court verdict -- is really a very strong confirmation of their acquittal," he told reporters afterwards.

He said the defence lawyers were "relieved, happy, but not surprised" by the ruling, which he claimed was "strong, it is well reasoned, it examines all the points".

As they left the court building, defence lawyers were loudly booed by protesters who chanted "racist justice" and "shame on you".

- 'Permit to kill' -

Demonstrator Sasha, who did not want to give her last name, said: "I cannot believe today that there is an acquittal: a total acquittal, zero culpability, zero notion of guilt."

"Not even abuse of authority?... It's like it's two different realities," she told AFP.

Saying that Ben Peter was not an isolated case in Switzerland, she added: "It's really terrible to see that even today, even after all those black men that were killed by police: if there is police involved, justice is just not working."

Fellow protester Lily added: "It's like the justice gives a permit to kill for policemen."

A protest is planned on Saturday in Lausanne.

rjm-nl/imm