My name is Brian: the prisoner whose treatment put Switzerland on trial

Read Time:15 Minute, 32 Second

The Guardian

“My relationship to this country is so … ” Brian Keller tails off, searching for the word to describe his feelings toward the nation that has, even in the eyes of UN observers, tortured him. “Strange,” he concludes. “They’ve always treated me as something else, telling me to go back to Africa. I’m from here. My father and grandfather are Swiss.”

We are sitting in the visiting room of a small penitentiary in the canton, or state, of Zürich, Switzerland’s biggest city. It is the first time Keller has met a journalist unhandcuffed and without the division of a plexiglass screen.

Keller, 26, is broad shouldered like his sporting hero Mike Tyson. After our 45-minute conversation Keller shows off his fast hands in the prison’s open-air gym, urging me to film him while he shadow-boxes until he slips because, he complains, he doesn’t have the right footwear.

I suggest that, given Swiss authorities and tabloid media have painted him as a dangerous, unrepentant thug, a video of Keller’s fighting prowess may not make for the best PR. He shrugs.

He doesn’t care what they think any more.

Keller is perhaps Switzerland’s most notorious prisoner, his criminal justice case cleaving the nation along racial and political lines. To some, including the Swiss tabloids that pounce with grim fascination on his every encounter with the law, Keller is a monster beyond rehabilitation. To others he is the victim of a penal system that has degraded him and a racism that underpins many of Switzerland’s state institutions.

Brian Keller was born in Paris in 1995, and lived there with his Cameroonian mother and two siblings while his father, an architect, commuted between Paris and Zürich. In 1998 the family moved to Zürich. But Keller’s parents fought, and his mother moved back to France.

The boy struggled. He learned German in months but was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and was his kindergarten’s only Black child. State promises of therapy and special lessons never materialised. In 2005, aged 10, Keller was accused of starting fires, questioned by Zürich police and held in a closed institution for nearly a month. The arson allegation was later found to have been false.

The following year he committed the first of more than 30 misdemeanours that kept him in the continued care of Zürich’s youth prosecution service until 2011, including a stint of solitary confinement when he was only 12.

At 15, he stabbed an older youth, was convicted of grievous bodily harm and sentenced to nine months. Since then Keller has barely been out of the justice system, bounced between prisons, youth offender institutions and psychiatric facilities. At various points, he claims, authorities have shackled him to gurneys, held him in isolation, made him sleep on cold, concrete floors and forcibly administered medication.

Keller attempted suicide in his cell twice while on remand in 2011. After the second attempt he was taken to a psychiatric unit where he was restrained for nearly two weeks and forcibly administered sedatives. Some months later a shaggy-haired Zürich youth lawyer named Hansueli Gürber stepped in. Gürber devised a rehabilitation programme, a Sondersetting or “special setting”, for Keller.

Authorities had approved such progressive alternatives to prison before – but on nowhere near this scale or cost. They handed the teenager a city apartment, where he lived trouble-free for over a year. He was kept to a strict, minute-by-minute regime of tutoring, psychotherapy and Thai boxing lessons. He was allowed to see friends and family. Correctional officers hailed the experiment a success. Finally, they determined, the Swiss justice system had brought Keller a measure of stability.

But during a Swiss television documentary that aired in August 2013, Gürber mentioned that Keller’s Sondersetting cost taxpayers about 29,000 francs, or £23,500, a month. The next day the tabloid Blick assailed Gürber with a feature headlined “Social Delusion.” It published photos of Keller’s sculpted, boxer’s physique with the face blacked out, and gave him the pseudonym “Carlos”.

Politicians soon picked up the media outrage, and railed against Keller’s taxpayer funded “luxury” treatment in newspaper columns and on TV chatshows. Switzerland was in the throes of populist politics at the time: the rightwing Swiss People’s party would sweep to victory at the coming election initiating referendums to tighten asylum controls, ban burqas and the construction of minarets.

The Swiss tabloid Blick’s front page story about Keller’s rehabiliation programme attacked the cost to taxpayers of the teenager’s city apartment and Thai boxing lessons. The headline says: ‘Social Madness!’. Photograph: Blick

Within months Gürber had stepped down and Keller was back in solitary confinement allegedly for his own and others’ protection.

“I saw on the TV all these people saying I was bad, and suddenly I was back in prison,” Keller tells me. “It was a dream to be with my family, training, learning, meeting up with others,” Keller adds. To courts’ claims the move was for his own safety, he scoffs: “Laughable. I laugh about it, but it’s so crazy sad.”

“It’s unbelievable what the tabloid press have done,” adds his father. “They could have just researched properly. All the lies that have been written about Brian really make me mad.”

In 2014, Switzerland’s federal court deemed that Keller’s return to isolation – long after he had served his stabbing sentence – was unlawful. It released him, and he went almost three years without committing an offence. But by now, according to his father, Max, “Half of Switzerland knew Brian, and he was scared. He feared getting hunted, lynched.” Somebody leaked Max Keller’s address too. “People started to show up at our door and they would ring the whole night.”

After a street altercation in which Keller punched a member of his local boxing gym, breaking the man’s jaw he was sentenced to 18 months and was back in jail, this time in a secure wing of Pfäffikon prison outside Zürich.

His cell had no chair, bed or mattress, and he wasn’t allowed to shower. Keller claims guards shackled his ankles and regularly cancelled his hour-long walk around the prison yard. Family visits were postponed time after time. For several weeks, he had nothing to wear but a poncho.

When an auditor from Switzerland’s justice ministry concluded that Keller’s conditions amounted to “degrading and discriminatory treatment” the prison’s director stepped down. Zürich’s justice director, Jacqueline Fehr, said that errors had been made and, soon after, authorities moved Keller to Pöschwies, another prison near Zürich.

Yet beyond Max and some sections of the Swiss press, Keller had few allies. In June 2017, just before his due release date, prison guards informed Keller that he would be moved to solitary confinement to prevent a planned attack by another inmate. A fight ensued.

Keller, who himself incurred a black eye and swollen lip, was indicted for attempted serious bodily harm against his guards and several other offences (although judgments were later overturned). And in 2018 authorities transferred him to a holding cell specially constructed for him at Pöschwies, complete with his own security detail, at a far greater cost than the 2013 rehabilitation scheme.

“There were mistakes made,” Jerome Endrass, head of research and development at Zürich’s justice department, now says. “But he’s a difficult individual, I think that’s quite objective.” Endrass claims that the media and “foreigners who don’t understand Switzerland” ended up making a “celebrity” of Keller, adding to authorities’ struggles to release him.

As late as June 2021, Switzerland’s high court increased Keller’s sentence of four years and nine months to six years and four months, meaning that it will be at least another year before Keller may be released.

It was only in 2019 that Keller began to defend himself in the public sphere. At a hearing he told the court his name was Brian and asked that authorities stop calling him Carlos, the name the tabloids had adopted. Then he exchanged letters with a group of Swiss artists, who published them on an Instagram account titled My Name is Brian (now brian3el). “They think we’re worse than animals,” read one posted last July. “It gives me mad depression and hate here in solitary confinement.”

Brian Keller shackled in prison. Photograph: Florian Kalotay

The letters were “finally a way to speak”, Keller told me. “And people actually listened.” The collective, #BigDreams, has since created installations in Zürich – including the erection of a mock cell on a busy Zürich square entitled Swiss Quality Torture.

“How does not only Brian get resocialised, but also the society that has been torturing him for years resocialise itself,” artist and former prison guard Daniel Riniker told me. “How can we hold people accountable, and have a more forward-thinking view on resocialisation and justice?”

Keller has spent a combined three years in solitary confinement, a violation of the UN’s so-called Mandela Rule, which prohibits solitary confinement of more than 15 consecutive days. Two psychologists have asserted that his protests and outbursts while in prison are a bulwark against mental breakdown.

“He was certainly traumatised by the time he left prison the first time, when he was 11,” says Nils Melzer, the UN’s special rapporteur on torture. “And then they retraumatised him repeatedly.”

Melzer, who is also Swiss, first intervened in Keller’s case in May 2021. His report a month later accused Switzerland of violating the UN torture convention and demanded an immediate end to Keller’s solitary confinement. “I had my prejudices, through the media, that this man was the Hannibal Lecter of Switzerland,” he adds. “There was the image that had been painted of him as a horrible, violent criminal that you can’t let loose on society because he’ll just randomly attack or kill people.”

While Melzer concedes that Keller has committed violent crimes in the past, “the state has also contributed and taken this inmate and exacerbated the situation in the excessively repressive manner in which they’ve confronted him … Switzerland goes around the world preaching standards to other states, so why don’t you start at home and take the guy out of solitary confinement? This is clearly beyond what’s acceptable according to international standards.”

In January justice chief Fehr responded to Melzer via a press statement in which she urged him to visit Keller in person. “It is usually a good idea to get a first-hand impression of the circumstances being reported,” read the statement, adding that Fehr “urges Melzer to take a look at the way the Pöschwies correctional facility and the Zürich penal system work as a whole”.

There is political support for Melzer’s view. Yet Endrass claims that Melzer never accepted an invitation to meet justice department officials involved with Keller’s case. “If you make this claim that people are tortured,” he says, “At least you have to do your facts.”

And tabloid journalists have continued to portray Keller as a lost cause. “In 2013, the Zurich department of justice reacted in panic,” wrote Weltwoche’s Alex Baur last December. “They locked up the 18-year-old. Unjustly, as the federal supreme court found after several months of deliberation.

“Since then, Carlos has used this injustice as justification for a crazy crusade against the judiciary and the penal system,” Baur continued. “But the man is and remains dangerous.”

Switzerland is home to a huge number of international rights organisations including the UNHCR, the UN high commissioner for human rights, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Labour Organization. The diversity of the Swiss football team has been hailed as evidence of the country’s successful multiculturalism.

Brian Keller as a child. Photograph: Max Keller

Yet some critics now believe Keller’s case suggests a Swiss exceptionalism that dehumanises Black and brown-skinned citizens, even as children.

“Every single pivot in this administration of justice, every single decision that’s been made, you see on multiple levels – the prosecutors, the teachers, the judges, the prison personnel – [Keller] is seen not as a child, or as a young person, or even as a citizen of Switzerland, but as a monster,” Dominique Day, chair of the UN working group of experts on people of African descent, told me.

Day visited Keller in prison in January. She describes officials, and a system in denial. “I said, show me some white people who have experienced this treatment, ever,” Day told me. “Obviously no response … This culture of denial we see a lot in Europe.”

“If he’d have been blond and blue-eyed, I can’t imagine,” says Philip Stolkin, a Zürich-based human rights lawyer who has been working on Keller’s case since last year. “Even if he isn’t the nicest person, as the judiciary claims, one should not put him in solitary confinement for three years continuously … He has been in solitary confinement repeatedly during the last 10 years. This is clearly contrary to human rights.

“The nation is a dirty, rotten scoundrel and a hypocrite.”

“I assume yes, at some point he was confronted with racism,” admits Endrass. “He was also probably confronted with racism while he was incarcerated.” But, he adds, of the minority of prisoners at Pöschwies, the high-security prison, who are Swiss nationals like Keller, most are what Endrass calls “ethnically diverse”. “So I don’t see how this has played a specific role in dealing with him.”

Switzerland’s constitution theoretically, guards against the kinds of treatment Keller has endured while incarcerated. Yet because of the nation’s historical reliance on referendums, lawyers often take cases to Strasbourg’s European court of human rights or other international bodies such as the special rapporteur on torture.

“We respect international conventions but not our own constitution,” says Stolkin. “So if something is wrong you go straight to Strasbourg. Switzerland has a huge problem.”

“People here think it’s all chocolate, cuckoo clocks and happy people,” says Dimitri Rougy, a Zürich-based human rights activist who has assisted the Keller family. “This shows that it really isn’t.”

Brigitte Hürlimann, who has written extensively about Keller’s case for the online magazine Republik, says that: “It’s not as simple as racism or xenophobia. There were a lot of layers.”

“Surely it’s part of the deal that he gets out again. What’s the idea? Forever in prison? What’s the goal? And the people have always forgotten this part. Nobody wants a former criminal. Nobody wants to give him a job, nobody wants to rent him a room. It’s so difficult.”

Brian Keller in the penitentiary where he is currently held. This was his first meeting with a journalist unhandcuffed and without plexiglass screening. Photograph: Sean Williams/The Guardian

Keller has been in the lower-security Zürich location at which we met since January, and his health has improved – “simply because they treat him like a human being”, Stolkin says. A tutor teaches him once weekly with a laptop. Keller can only type with one finger: it’s the first time he’s ever used a keyboard. He has a paunch from being unable to work out regularly for the past couple of years, but in the prison’s gym he can work it off. “It’s great he can train,” the warden tells me as we walk along the prison’s halls. “Sport’s so important for him.”

His father, Max, has been in his corner throughout, for which Keller has a huge amount of love and respect. “Now they are saying Brian gets the chance to do better; to be better,” his father told me. “But what does that mean? First they destroy him and then he has to prove himself.

“It’s a Machtspiel, ‘power play’,” he adds. “And, of course, it’s about racism.”

When – if – he is released, Keller wants to box. Tyson, his idol, was “so powerful but also clever and technical”, he says. Perhaps then he could travel. He’d love to visit London. He loves Paris too – but it’s so big, he adds, he’s sure he’d get lost. Anywhere, though, is better than prison. “I’m wasting the best years of my life here,” he tells me. I’ve got so much energy and I want to do so much.”

The legal ordeals have “caused me so much pain”, he adds. “I just want a life back.”

July 19, 2022 at 02:39PM Sean Williams

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