Switzerland endorsed Sunday a far-right push to automatically expel foreign residents convicted of certain crimes, to the dismay of critics who described it as a "dark day for human rights."
The approval of the initiative in a referendum was an expression of insecurity, the justice minister said, stressing the government would examine how to implement the new rule without violating its international obligations.
In the vote, 52.9 percent were in favour of automatic expulsions and 47.1 percent were against, with the country's German-speaking majority largely backing the proposal. Only six of the 26 cantons rejected the initiative.
The vote came exactly a year after Switzerland shocked the world by agreeing to ban the construction of new minarets, which was another proposal backed by the far-right Swiss People's Party (SVP).
The decision on Sunday "is a first step on the way towards greater security," said the SVP in a statement.
As with their campaign against minarets, the far-right party launched an aggressive push for the expulsion of foreign criminals, saying those guilty of certain crimes should be stripped of their right to remain in the country.
Its signature poster illustrates a white sheep kicking a black sheep out of the Swiss flag. Another poster depicts a gangster-like man with the slogan "Ivan S., rapist, and soon a Swiss?".
Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga noted that the "majority of the voters have sent a clear signal that they consider foreign criminality to be a serious problem."
It is "an expression of insecurity. I take this very seriously," she told journalists.
A working group would be set up to examine how the new rule could be implemented in a way that complies with the Swiss constitution and international conventions, she said.
"It is in the interest of all -- Swiss, foreigners and the Swiss economy -- that we have more clarity on this soon," she added.
Judges can already issue expulsion orders for foreign criminals but the SVP's initiative goes further by requiring automatic expulsions for those found guilty of "rape, serious sexual offence, acts of violence such as robbery," drug trafficking and "abuse of social aid."
According to the Federal Office of Migration, about 350 to 400 people are expelled every year but this figure would rise to 1,500 with the adoption of the new initiative.
Critics object that it smacks of discrimination and runs in the same xenophobic vein as the banning of minarets.
Amnesty International said the approval of the plan marked a "dark day for human rights in Switzerland."
"The initiative violates not only various international conventions... it is also contrary to the principle of proportionality and that of the ban on all forms of discrimination written into the federal constitution," said the rights group.
"The initiators have once more abused the right of an initiative to increase their political capital through xenophobic discourse," said the group, noting it could lead to refugees being sent back to countries where they could be tortured or killed.
On a separate issue, the Swiss clearly rejected a move by the Socialist Party for "more tax justice", with 58.5 percent voting against.
The party had asked the Swiss to approve a minimum tax rate of 22 percent for people earning more than 250,000 francs (188,000 euros, 249,000 dollars).
The move would have capped the right of individual cantons and communes to set their own tax rates and forced the country's wealthiest to pay more to the taxmen.
It was opposed by the government and centre-right parties. Some industrialists, such as lift magnate Alfred Schindler, had threatened to pack up and leave the country if the proposal were adopted.© ANP/AFP