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Switzerland: Compulsory prison work for pensioner does not breach human rights convention

Judges ruled today that compulsory work for a prisoner of retirement age does not breach European human rights law.

In its judgment in the case of Meier v. Switzerland (application no. 10109/14) the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been:

no violation of Article 4 § 2 (prohibition of forced labour) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The applicant, 70 year old Beat Meier, is a Swiss national who was born in 1946 and is currently detained in Regensdorf. By a judgment of 4 July 2003, the Court of Appeal of the Canton of Zürich sentenced Meier to four years and four months’ imprisonment. In March 2010 the Court of Appeal suspended the execution of the custodial sentence, replacing it with preventive detention (Verwahrung).

On 6 December 2011, Meier requested exemption from compulsory work while serving his sentence. His request was denied. The competent prison authority imposed a stricter prison regime on him on account of his refusal to work. That decision was subsequently revoked after an appeal from Meier.

In its judgement, the European court noted that there was insufficient consensus among Council of Europe member States regarding compulsory work for prisoners after retirement age. Accordingly, it emphasised, on the one hand, that the Swiss authorities enjoyed a considerable margin of appreciation and, on the other, that no absolute prohibition could be inferred from Article 4 of the convention.

The compulsory work performed by Meier during his detention could therefore be regarded as “work required to be done in the ordinary course of detention”, for the purpose of Article 4 of the convention.

Consequently, it did not constitute “forced or compulsory labour” within the meaning of that article.

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