Tortured Ethiopian Refugee Wins Backing of UN Committee

On 24 January The UN Committee against Torture made a decision on the case of an Ethiopian refugee who was to be deported from Switzerland to Italy, after he took legal action three years earlier.

In 2016 Swiss authorities decided to send a 29-year-old Ethiopian citizen, who had been treated in Switzerland since 2012, back to Italy. The UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) seized on the matter in 2016 and has now concluded that this referral would mean Switzerland violated articles 3, 14 and 16 of the Convention Against Torture. Indeed, Article 3 stipulates: “No State Party shall expel, return ("refouler") or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture”.

Jailed and tortured in Ethiopia

In 2005 Adam Harun was jailed in Ethiopia for being politically involved in supporting the Oromo people following the murder of his sister at Mekele University in Ethiopia. According to the CAT report, while behind bars, Harun was tortured, with injuries "mainly affecting his genitals and abdomen". He was then released due to deteriorating health but was informed that he would be imprisoned again once back on his feet. In June 2008, he fled Ethiopia for Europe. He was rescued in Italy and taken to a Rome hospital where he stayed for three months. In 2009 he was granted refugee status and a five-year Italian residence permit. He was sent to Grossetto in Tuscany to receive healthcare, although he reported that the facilities were not good enough for him to receive proper treatment.

Swiss authorities claimed refugee should be sent back to Italy

In view of his health, he left for Norway in 2012 where he received more treatment. However, Norway asked the Italian authorities to take him back, as he had been granted refugee status there. Once back in Italy, Harun claimed that the Italian authorities confiscated his papers. He subsequently travelled to Switzerland in July 2012, where he was treated for two years. In 2014 the Swiss authorities decided to send him back to Italy, although his doctor in Switzerland said that in view of the medical follow-up and the link the patient had established with him, Harun should not leave Switzerland. On 8 July 2016, Harun filed a complaint with the UN Committee Against Torture in the hope that it would oppose to his transfer to Italy.

Case put before UN Committee Against Toture

The applicant considers that the decision of the Swiss authorities to send him back to Italy violates Article 14 of the Convention Against Torture, which stipulates: “Each State Party shall ensure (…) that the victim of an act of torture obtains redress and has an enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation, including the means for as full rehabilitation as possible.” His transfer to Italy would also go against the principle of "non-refoulement" in Article 3, which focuses on the fact that “No State Party shall expel, return or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.

Harun’s doctor in Switzerland considers that a return to Tuscany would mean him being alone and homeless with limited access to medical care. Also, as a result of the current migration crisis and the new dynamic in Italian politics, Italy is no longer able to provide asylum seekers with essential medical care.

Swiss court rejects Mr. Harun’s plea but CAT upholds it

The Swiss Federal Administrative Court has stated that although Mr. Harun's condition is worrying, his transfer to Italy does not mean that he will not be taken care of and that "the Convention does not oblige Switzerland to remedy the disparities between its health system (...) and Italy".

The Committee Against Torture has stressed the importance of the principle of non-refoulement put forward by the ECHR and the "prohibition of transferring an individual to a State where he or she is at risk of ill-treatment". In conclusion, the Committee considered that the removal of Adam Harun to Italy would constitute "a violation of the 3rd article of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment". In light of this, Switzerland cannot forcibly return the Mr. Harun to Italy.