Geneva’s top justice official lays down the law


by Malcolm Curtis

“Foreigners are our most interesting clients,” Geneva’s attorney-general Olivier Jornot told the American International Club in a deadpan comment during a speech at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage on November 21.

Jornot explained why this is the case as he outlined the goals and challenges of his job as head of the canton’s justice department in a candid presentation delivered with a dry sense of humour.

Geneva’s geography, surrounded by France and with no borders separating it from the rest of Switzerland, makes law enforcement difficult, he told the luncheon meeting.

One of the resulting issues Geneva struggles with is illegal immigration.

“It’s politically incorrect but it’s true, we have a problem with this,” said Jornot.

“These people are involved with crimes.”

Many people come to Geneva from North Africa where they find themselves on the streets “with no way of making a living other than by stealing” and they end up in Champ-Dollon, Geneva’s main prison.

Chatting with AIC members after the speech, Jornot said 93 percent of the inmates at the prison are foreigners.

For criminals from countries such as Georgia and areas of France such as Lyon’s economically depressed suburbs, Geneva seems like the “land of milk and honey” or an “economic paradise”, he told the luncheon.

So many are attracted here, he said, to commit burglaries.

While the Swiss may be famous for making chocolate and watches, Georgians “specialize in burglaries,” Jornot said in reference to certain gangs.

He said they even use Geneva as a place to hide out after committing break-ins of “nice homes” in neighbouring France, many of which are owned by Genevans.

Jornot described a situation where gangs from the Lyon area came to Geneva with “war weapons” such as Kalishnikov rifles to commit armed robberies.

They “discovered Geneva” and regarded it like a “supermarket” with its unguarded currency exchange offices and post offices.

“Then, of course, the answer got more professional from police,” Jornot said.

Investigators tracked the criminals back to Lyon where they were arrested and tried in French courts, which has discouraged further such activity, he said.

Now, “I think they have less interest in Switzerland.”

Jornot explained another major preoccupation of his department involving foreigners is with Geneva’s international sector, including the UN and its related agencies and organizations.

Around 40,000 working in this sector have legal immunity from local laws, which means a lot of driving offences go unpunished and some diplomats “beat their wives,” he said.

His department has a special section devoted to determining whether cases are subject to diplomatic immunity or not.

Security requirements for international organizations also require a “very large contingent of police,” he pointed out.

The lawyer and politician, a member of the Geneva Liberal party, is a past member of the cantonal parliament who was first elected to his post as chief prosecutor in 2011.

The former colonel in the Swiss Army was re-elected earlier this year to a second term for six years.

Jornot heads up a justice department that is “completely independent” of the government, overseeing 43 prosecutors and 100 judges.

With a budget of 156.5 million francs, the department’s expenditures account for only 1.97 percent of the canton’s total spending but finances remain a challenge, he said.

The department dealt with 93,500 cases last year, two-thirds of which were in the realm of civil law, while the remainder were criminal.

The media focuses largely on the criminal matters while other legal issues remain largely hidden, he said.

Jornot heads a system with courts divided into the areas of civil, criminal and administrative law.

The department is handicapped by having different divisions dispersed in 15 buildings, meaning that in the centre of Geneva “you have a lot of criminals travelling every day in buses,” Jornot joked.

A project emerged to combine all the justice activities under one roof on an industrial site, he said.

But the size of the plot would have required a 200-metre tall tower to house all the department’s activities, including law courts, so the idea was abandoned.

One of the major differences with the American legal system is that in Geneva (since 2010), prosecutors investigate criminal cases before they go to court.

Jornot said that means that his department has a special relationship with the police in investigations.

On another issue, the top prosecutor expressed his concern that some Swiss politicians want Switzerland to withdraw from the European Convention for the Protection on Human Rights.

People who don’t accept the workings of the convention “can go to North Korea,” he said.


About Malcolm Curtis

Freelance English-language communications professional (writing, editing, translations) based near Geneva, Switzerland. Let me know if I can help you.
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