GENEVA — An assault on a Saudi Arabian outside a Geneva night club has cast an unwanted spotlight on surging street crime and claims of “cut throat” neighbourhoods in the Swiss city with an international reputation for tranquility.
The Arabic television channel Al-Arabiya stoked the dispute with a report last month on the July 16 incident involving a 38-year-old Saudi man, that criticised security in the summer playground for wealthy Middle East tourists.
With a lucrative global diplomatic centre to maintain, Geneva is sensitive about anything that might harm its pristine image and repeated high position in global quality of life rankings.
“That image corresponded to a genuine image of a safe city,” tourism office director Francois Bryand told AFP.
Bryand has written to the regional government to express concern about “insecurity”. “We had an advantage over other cities that we wouldn’t like to lose,” he explained.
Gulf tourists generate some 250 million Swiss francs (164 million euros, 233 million dollars), in revenue a year locally, about one-tenth of the overall total, according to Geneva’s tourist office.
Attempts to control the fallout have run up against campaigning for regional elections in October and signs of a substantial growth in crime, while the “paucity” of Swiss data on crime has muddied the real picture.
Geneva owes its international aura “to its reputation as a calm place of course,” the canton’s chief prosecutor Daniel Zappelli acknowledged in a radio interview.
However, he pointed to a “50 percent increase” in crimes like assaults and thefts over the past seven years, especially in two neighbourhoods, Paquis and Eaux-Vives.
They flank the city’s top attraction, Lake Geneva, and are popular places for an evening out. Those areas have also been targeted by high profile police swoops in recent months.
“There are more assaults, more thefts, there is more of everything and to respond to all that there is the same body of police,” Zappelli said on Radio Suisse Romande.
Ever since he was elected, the prosecutor has been at odds with the region’s governing coalition over policing.
“I said clearly that there are neighbourhoods that have become cut-throat. It’s an expression of course, but there are neighbourhoods that are no longer safe at all,” he added last Thursday.
Street crime in Geneva hardly rivals most major world cities. But with a population of just 188,000, Switzerland’s second biggest city is much smaller.
“We have seen a growth in petty crime which generates a feeling of insecurity… that didn’t exist a few years ago,” cantonal police spokesman Jean-Philippe Brandt said.
Official data showed that the number of annual homicide convictions remained largely in single figures in the canton of Geneva between 2000 and 2006.
But convictions for offences involving bodily harm — anything from a slap to muggings or more serious attacks — doubled to 451 over the same period.
Police figures showed similar growth in the number of charges for such offences between 2000 and 2008, while national data suggested a similar trend. Thefts, including burglaries, also grew by some three-quarters in Geneva.
But the figures have also been inflated by the recent recognition of domestic violence.
In addition, crime watching is rudimentary in Switzerland: the first ever official attempt to compare the 26 cantons is only due to be released next year.
“That’s the paucity of official statistics. We’re in a kind of debate without figures,” a Swiss statistician commented on condition of anonymity.
Despite its role in sparking the debate, doubts have emerged in recent days about the link between the assault on the Saudi man and the broader trend.
Citing police sources, the daily Tribune de Geneve reported that the man was among a crowd leaving a night club in the city’s plushest shopping street who began arguing.
He reportedly suffered head injuries when he fell to the ground after being slapped, plunging him into a coma for several days.
Brandt declined to give details on the investigation.