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Face down, naked and left to die – Swiss guards acquitted over death of Tamil asylum seeker

A group of four Swiss guards have been acquitted over their roles in the death of a 28-year-old Tamil woman at a prison in 2018, after they delayed medical attention following a suicide attempt for 19 minutes.

The woman, identified only as “Kowshika”, had fled Sri Lanka but had her asylum application rejected by Swiss authorities who subsequently detained her at the Waaghof Prison in Basel.

On the morning of June 12, she was transferred to a cell with a camera "for her own safety and to monitor her state of health," according to a court indictment, with reports that she was restless, screaming, ringing a bell to alert guards and hitting the walls of the cell.

It was in that cell that she later attempted suicide as she tied her top around her neck. Despite the presence of a camera in the cell recording all the events, guards did not enter the cell until six and a half minutes later. Three guards then came into the cell and reportedly cut her loose and splashed water on her face – but then all left the cell, with Kowshika lying on the floor.

"Failure to take urgently indicated rescue measures, all three guards left the cell - they neither checked vital signs nor put the woman in the familiar side position," the prosecution stated. Instead, they left her in "a position that is unnatural even for medical laypeople and visibly impaired breathing" and called in a female supervisor.

The female supervisor subsequently completely undressed Kowshika and left her lying face down on the prison cell floor. Without checking her vital signs, all guards then left the cell with the door closed. The guards then watched the cell through the camera for a further ten minutes, briefly peeking into the before they finally re-entered and turned her on her back to begin resuscitation. Paramedics were then alerted, but only arrived approximately half an hour after the suicide attempt. Kowshika died at the Basel University Hospital two days later, due to brain damage she had suffered from a prolonged lack of oxygen.

"They assumed that she was playing something for you," said Dominik Kiener, the judge at trial of the prison guards. This had nothing to do with a lack of training, he continued, stating that the guards “knew what to do…. They just didn't do it”.

According to the public prosecutor's office, it took around 19 minutes from the initial suicide attempt until she was turned onto her back and resuscitation commenced.

"It's crazy how you just left the woman in the corner," Kiener added.

‘You have violated your duties of care’

The four guards on trial were all found to have “violated your duties of care” by Kiener, who would have expected even “banal” first aid measures to have been initiated.  

However, he went on to explain that the legal procedures brought against the four hinged on whether Kowshika would have survived if life-saving measures had been initiated immediately.

Though forensic physician Holger Wittig spoke of "good opportunities", he ultimately could not say with certainty, that she would have survived. "The offense of negligent homicide is not fulfilled and you have to be acquitted," concluded Kiener.

The verdict has been slammed by many who see Kowshika’s death as indicative of wider failures within the Swiss asylum system. Protestors took to the streets of Basel last week, demanding a change to the system. In Waaghof prison alone, where asylum seekers are amongst those held, there have been over 40 reported suicide attempts over the last four years.

“We must continue on this path so that no one needs to ask for a permit anymore - so that no one else will die in a prison,” said one protestor.

Community failures

The death and subsequent acquittal of the guards sent shockwaves through Switzerland’s large Tamil diaspora, leading many to reflect on failures within the community that failed to safeguard the 28-year-old as she fled from Sri Lanka.

“Soon after her arrival in Switzerland, like many asylum seekers, Kowshika "went underground",” said Swiss Tamil activist group, ‘Phoenix - the Next Generation’.

“It was during this time the Tamil community in Swiss hurled accusations and attempted to elicit sexual favours,” they added. Kowshika faced false allegations in Basel, before a Tamil restaurant owner in Bern had attempted coerce her into a sexual relationship in exchange for safety, security, housing and employment. Female asylum seekers commonly face such dangers, added Pheonix.

“Domestically, socially and structurally we as a people have failed to provide the safety and security to Kowshika and many others in similar circumstances. It is within this failure we reaffirm our commitment to our people and take steps to proactively work towards their well-being.”

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