ZURICH (Reuters) - Two executives of Switzerland's biggest political party violated laws against racism with a campaign advertisement suggesting people from Kosovo are violent criminals, the highest Swiss court ruled on Thursday.
The case revolved around a newspaper advert headlined "Kosovars slice up Swiss" that was part of a far-right Swiss People's Party (SVP) campaign to limit immigration.
The SVP, with nearly a third of seats in parliament, created the advert after a 2011 knife attack involving an aggressor of Kosovar heritage and a Swiss victim.
The Federal Supreme Court in Lausanne upheld the convictions of former SVP Secretary General Martin Baltisser and his deputy, Silvia Baer, on charges of racial discrimination, ruling their ad painted people from Kosovo as violent and undermined their human dignity.
The pair had appealed against their initial conviction, contending Kosovars did not qualify as a race or ethnicity. The court rejected their argument, saying ethnic Albanians in Kosovo constituted a distinct ethnicity.
"Those of Kosovaran heritage are represented as inferior and a hostile climate against them is created ... as well as the idea that people from Kosovar are not welcome," the court said in a statement.
"As the lower court rightly concluded, this fulfils fundamental conditions of discrimination and disparagement and the call to hate or discrimination."
Switzerland's Kosovar population numbers 111,000, Federal Statistics Office data show. Many left the Balkans amid wars in the 1990s.
The SVP is known in Switzerland for anti-immigration campaign advertisements as well as posters that some view as racist, including characterisations of white sheep kicking black sheep out of the country and women clad in black burqas.
The SVP raised concern about the decision's impact on freedom of expression.
"The law is being abused to silence unwelcome political opponents," the party said in a statement. "Such developments in a country that places high value in freedom of expression are a cause for concern."
Baer, who not respond to requests for comment, remains an SVP official. Baltisser, who referred questions to the SVP, works for former government minister Christoph Blocher, the billionaire architect of the party's rise to power since the 1980s.
A Bern cantonal court had fined Baltisser and Baer a combined more than 23,000 Swiss francs ($22,900).
Though the ad included details of the 2011 attack in the mountain town of Interlaken in smaller print, the court said most people would still interpret its message as a broad statement, not a reference to one incident.
"The average reader understands the description of the individual case merely as a shattering example of the headline's general claim that Kosovars are generally more violent and more criminal," the court wrote.
($1 = 1.0044 Swiss francs)
Editing by Alison Williams