Switzerland: Federal Intelligence Service has spied on migrants' rights group for 15 years


The Swiss Federal Intelligence Service has been monitoring the activities of Solidarité sans frontières (SOSF), an organisation that advocates for the rights of migrants and asylum-seekers, since 2006, papers obtained by SOSF show. SOSF is one of many such groups that the FIS keeps tabs on.

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The text below is a lightly-edited machine translation of this article.

The story to be told here began in May 2019, when the association "droitsfondamentaux.ch" submitted a request for examination to the DélCG, the parliamentary committee responsible for overseeing the intelligence services: the Federal Intelligence Service (FIS, or Service de renseignement de la Confédération, SRC) was allegedly still monitoring - illegally - the exercise of political rights. This is confirmed by the replies received by various organisations to their requests for information on the data held by the SRC. In these replies, the call for the demonstration "Between us no borders" on 16 June 2018 in Bern appeared several times. Solidarité sans frontières had organised this demonstration. It had gone ahead without incident and had ended with a party on the Bundesplatz, attended by about 4,000 people.

So when we followed the call of droitsfondamentaux.ch in September 2019 and also requested access to our data, we already knew that there would be something about Sosf in the SRC files. However, the 13-page summary that the service sent us in November 2020, more than a year after our request, still surprised us. The first of the 77 entries listed by the SRC dated back to 2006, the last one dated back to July 2019, only two months before our access request.

Incomplete information

We protested against this first response from the SRC because it was incomplete in two respects: while other organisations that had received a response before us had also been given copies of the documents cited, the SRC initially only provided us with a summary. In its second response, in February 2021, the service partially corrected this. For some points, copies were attached, but most of them are redacted. At least we learned that some information on Sosf comes from the 'Internetmonitoring Linksextremismus', from the 'Monitoring of left-wing extremism on the Internet'. The information on the individual entries is also longer and more precise, which is why the document is now 18 pages long.

The other shortcoming is more serious and persists in the second answer: The SRC provides us with information on data from the

- Electronic Situation Overview (ESO),
- GEVER SRC (the electronic case management system, which contains both "administrative" and "intelligence" data),
- IASA SRC (the service's "integral analysis system"), and
- IASA-EXTR SRC (its "integral analysis system" for "violent extremism").

But at the same time, it states that information about the presence or otherwise of other entries in these information systems, either the already named ones or others such as INDEX SRC or the "residual data storage system", is postponed. According to Article 63 of the Federal Law on Intelligence (LRens), this is possible for 'overriding interests requiring secrecy', or if no other data concerning the person or organisation is processed. In the latter case, notification is made no later than three years after receipt of the request; and in cases requiring secrecy, no later than after the end of the retention period - which, for example for "other security-relevant data", in the IASA SRC system is 45 years "at most".

What data about us does the CRS keep?

The FIS is only allowed to collect and process "information relating to political activities or the exercise of freedom of opinion, association or assembly" if it has "concrete indications" that a person or organisation is using their fundamental rights to, for example, prepare or carry out violent extremist activities. This was already the case in the Federal Act on the Maintenance of Internal Security before 2016 and is now stipulated in Article 5 of the LRens.

If proof were needed that this article only serves to sweeten the pill, the response of the SRC to our request for inspection provides it. Want a sample? Among the 'administrative data' in its GEVER system, the SRC keeps information on our consultations on various bills. These consultation responses are not secret. They are on our website and are of course freely available to SRC employees. So why does a secret service keep data on this form of institutional policy?

Almost all other 'intelligence' entries in GEVER and other information systems relate to our political activities. This began in 2006 with our support for Dursun Güner, a recognised political refugee in Switzerland, who was arrested at the border on his way to Germany and detained for extradition (page 7, n. 25 of the response received in February). Güner spent several months in prison in Lörrach until the Oberlandesgericht [a court] in Karlsruhe rejected the Turkish extradition request. Are the leaflets from 2006 a sign of 'violent extremism', which should be kept even after 13 years?

The next event in the file is a vigil on the Bundesplatz in Bern that took place in 2010. Two days earlier, Nigerian Joseph Chiakwa had died during deportation. Sosf "mainly organised vigils", writes the SRC in its "situation report", "no problems are to be expected". (page 6 no. 23). So why record a trace of this vigil and keep it for more than ten years?

Then came the "Freedom. Equality. Dignity. For me and you" on 26 June 2010 (pages 7/8, n° 26 & 27). We did organise this peaceful as well as militant demonstration, but not the subsequent occupation of the Kleine Schanze, which was so peaceful that even the then head of the Federal Office for Migration, Alard Du Bois-Reymond, made an appearance - in a crisp beige suit.

The last entry of the year, like many others afterwards, was provided by the Bernese cantonal police: on 19 November 2010, we screened a series of short films at Waisenhausplatz in Bern. Micha Lewinski had made them for the 2 x No campaign against the SVP deportation initiative and the counter-proposal. (e.g. page 8, no. 28).

The years have gone by in a similar way: demonstrations and events that we have organised or supported, round tables in which we have participated, declarations of solidarity that we have signed - for example, for Nekane Txapartegi, the Basque activist who was, in the end, not extradited to Spain... An article about her, taken from our homepage, appears in the SRC's "Monitoring left-wing extremism on the Internet" report.

For all intents and purposes - accumulating data?

How is it that our activities regularly appear in the agendas and situation reports of the SRC? Are we to assume that Sosf is on the SRC's watch list approved annually by the Federal Council, or on its "EXTR SRC list" of organisations considered to be "violent extremism"? Or is it simply the practice of some cantonal police forces and the SRC to accumulate data on public events organised by left-wing organisations and social movements?

What is certain is that this information does not contribute to Switzerland's "internal security". The SRC has not managed to erase the x redundancies in its system [sic]. There are clearly no updates on the various actions and events, which could only certify that nothing happened. From 2006 to 2019 the intelligence service has been churning out data about us. The only logic that we can discern in this accumulation of clutter is the same as that which prevailed when files and dossiers were compiled before the 1989 scandal: The SRC spies on its political opponents - most of whom are on the left. It does not matter to them whether the actions listed were legal and peaceful, which also makes their filing illegal.

Instead of giving the intelligence service a more democratic framework, or better still, abolishing it altogether, Army Minister Viola Amherd plans to expand its power: According to the consultation, the snoopers should be able to monitor e-mails and telephone calls, use state-run Trojan software and bugging in the case of 'violent extremism'. The only possible answer is a very clear "No. Get your house in order."

In any case, Sosf invites all groups and organisations active in the field of asylum and migration policy to request information about their data.

Sample letter for a request for information

Image: Edith Soto, CC BY-SA 2.0

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