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Family of four die after plunging from Swiss balcony

Four members of a French family plunged to their deaths Thursday from a seventh-floor balcony in the Swiss town of Montreux, leaving a teenager seriously injured.

Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP
A file photo of a police sign in front of a hotel in the Swiss town of Montreux. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Five members of the same family, a 40-year-old man, his 41-year-old wife and her twin sister, along with the couple’s eight-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son went off the balcony of a building in the heart of Montreux, police said.

All of them except the son died when they hit the ground, while the boy was taken to hospital in serious condition, the Vaud cantonal police said.

All of those involved were French citizens, it said.

Police said the incident occurred after two officers showed up at the building, across from Montreux’s famous Casino, to execute a warrant for the father in connection with the home-schooling of one of the children.

The officers knocked on the door and heard a voice ask who they were.

After they answered, the apartment went quiet.

After failing to make contact, the officers left, but “in the meantime, a witness called the police to say that people had fallen from an apartment balcony,” the statement said.

“We do not know yet whether they fell or if this drama was due to other circumstances,” police spokesman Jean-Christophe Sauterel told the RTS public broadcaster.

An investigation has been opened, but police have already concluded that the incident happened “behind closed doors”, and that no one else was in the apartment at the time, he said.

‘Like a bad movie’ 

The officers at the apartment door had been there to execute a warrant for the father in connection with the home-schooling of the son, police said.

They knocked on the door and heard a voice ask who they were, but once they answered, the apartment went quiet, it said. After failing to make contact, the officers left, but “in the meantime, a witness called the police to say that people had fallen from an apartment balcony,” the statement said.

The bodies were found at the foot of the building, near Montreux’s famous Casino at around 7:00 am (0600 GMT). “I saw five bodies around 10 metres from the building, three on one side and two on the other,” one neighbour told the Tribune de Geneve daily.

“It was difficult to understand what I was seeing. It was like a bad movie.” Sauterel said the witness who called had seen the family members hit the ground, and was receiving professional support.

A number of other people connected with the drama, as well as first responders had also been offered counselling, he said.

The family were all French citizens who had been living in Switzerland for “several years” and had resident status, he said.

“We know that this was a rather reserved family, with little contact with the outside,” Sauterel told AFP, adding that they had had no run-ins with the law beyond the issue around the son’s schooling.

That case, he explained, had surfaced because the family had failed to respond to requests for information from school authorities, which are routine when a child is home-schooled. “Police were asked to pick up the father so he could explain the schooling situation of his child,” he explained.

According to the Tribune de Geneve, neighbours said the father appeared to have been working from home. The mother was a dentist who had worked in Paris, while her twin sister was an ophthalmologist.

Home schooling in Switzerland

Home schooling is heavily restricted in Switzerland, with some cantons banning the practice outright and others regulating it heavily. 

Homeschooling is more popular in the French-speaking part of the country. 

Of the 1,000 children who are homeschooled in Switzerland, approximately 600 of them are in the canton of Vaud. 

Vaud and neighbour Neuchâtel are considered to be one of the most permissive of homeschooling in Switzerland. 

In these cantons, you only need to alert the authorities if you plan on homeschooling your children – although there have been recent signs this will be further restricted in future. 

EXPLAINED: What are the rules for homeschooling children in Switzerland?

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POLICE

Your questions answered: Legal rights as a foreigner in France

The French Constitution offers broad legal protection to anyone in France from the right to trial to the right to legal advice, but there are some scenarios specific to foreigners in France.

Your questions answered: Legal rights as a foreigner in France

What are my rights if I am arrested or imprisoned?

If you are arrested you have the same rights as a French citizen to legal advice, phone calls, bail and a full trial – full details HERE.

There are some extra things to be aware of however;

Once arrested you have the right to an interpreter during police interviews.

You have the right to call your Embassy, although the help the Embassy can offer you is much more limited than many people think.

If you are released while awaiting a court hearing you will usually have to hand over your passport and undertake not to leave the country. If you are not a French resident, the judge can assign you a residency address in France.

If you are found guilty and imprisoned in France you maintain several rights, such as the right to vote (if you have French citizenship). France’s interior ministry has a handout detailing these rights, HERE

Can I appeal against my sentence?

Yes, you have the right to appeal a court’s decision.

Keep in mind that this can be a lengthy process with very specific deadlines – and it can go either way, so you risk a sentence being increased.

If you are acquitted in court,  French law also allows for the prosecution to appeal against your acquittal.

I am the victim of a crime, what are my rights?

In France, the role of the state and the prosecutor is to protect the peace, this means that if someone commits a crime against you, it is up to the state to decide whether to move forward with criminal proceedings.

It’s not up to the victim to decide whether or not to press charges.

Conversely, if the state chooses not to go ahead with criminal proceedings, but you (the victim) want them to press charges, you have the right to appeal against their decision to drop the case.

Can I be expelled from France for committing a crime?

Yes, although this is generally reserved for people who have committed serious crimes such as violent crime, drug-trafficking or terror offences.

If you have been jailed for a serious crime in France you can be served with an ‘interdiction du territoire français‘ – a ban from French soil – on your release. These are reserved for the most serious offences and simply being incarcerated does not necessarily lead to expulsion.

If you are a full-time resident in France but not a French citizen, then being convicted of a crime can mean that your visa or residency card will not be renewed. This is again usually reserved for people who have committed very serious crimes, but in certain circumstances residency can be withdrawn for less serious offences such as driving offences or begging. 

READ ALSO What offences can lose you the right to live in France?

If you have French citizenship it’s virtually impossible for your to be expelled from France although in some rare cases – usually connected to terrorism – citizenship of dual nationals can be revoked.

What are the rules for minors?

Minors in the French legal system have some specific rights. The EU has laid out the specific rights of minors, which apply in France as well, and apply from the time of arrest.

  • Right to be be quickly informed of legal rights, and to be assisted by your parents (or other appropriate persons)
  • Right to be assisted by a lawyer
  • No prison sentence should be imposed on a minor if they have not been assisted by a lawyer during the court hearings. All measures should be exhausted to avoid a child being imprisoned.
  • Right to be detained separately from adults if sent to prison.
  • Children should not be required “to reimburse the costs of certain procedural measures, for example, for individual assessment, medical examination, or audio-visual recording of interviews.”
  • A child’s privacy should be respected and “questioning will be audio-visually recorded or recorded in another appropriate manner.”
  • Repeatedly questioning children should be avoided.
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