Home > Diplomacy, Libya, Switzerland > Regained Liberty – Good News from the Swiss-Libyan Diplomatic Row

Regained Liberty – Good News from the Swiss-Libyan Diplomatic Row


Göldi, Calmy-Rey, and Moratinos

Max Göldi (L) with Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey (C) and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos (R) at their arrival in Switzerland at Zurich Airport on June 14, 2009


In Switzerland, the return of Max Göldi, the head of Libyan operations of the leading Swiss-Swedish engineering company ABB who was detained in Libya for almost two years for allegedly violating visa regulations, puts an end to his and his family’s suffering and uncertainty and draws a line under the diplomatic crisis between Tripoli and Berne, which also threatened to harm the relations between Libya and the EU. The following is a short synopsis of the most important points and events of the crisis:

In July 2008, Hannibal Gaddafi—the youngest son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi—and his pregnant wife Aline were arrested in a hotel in Geneva on charges of mistreating two of their servants. They were released on bail a fews days later and charges against them were dropped in September 2008 after reaching a financial arrangement with the victims. In Libya, but also in Switzerland, the circumstances of the arrest—20 armed policemen forced open the hotel suite and led Hannibal away in handcuffs—were heavily criticized as being disproportionate and degrading, given the fact that he did not resist arrest.

In apparent retailiation for Hannibal’s arrest, two Swiss businessmen—Max Göldi and Rachid Hamdani—were detained in Tripoli and prevented from leaving the country. Libyan authorities denied any connection between the two cases and argued that the businessmen were violating visa regulations.

Between July 2008 and August 2009, there were various visits by Swiss diplomats and the Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey to Tripoli trying to find an end to the diplomatic crisis.

In August 2009, then Swiss president Hans-Rudolf Merz travelled to Tripoli where he offered an apology for the “unjustfied and unnecessary” arrest of Hannibal and his wife. Although this was widely criticized in Switzerland as being considered a “diplomatic genuflection“, it nevertheless meant an important turning point in the crisis. Why? Because during that visit, Merz got the oral and a few days later also written assurance from the Libyan Prime Minister that Göldi and Hamdani would be released end of August or beginning of September 2009. And in fact, both of them got their passports back before the end of August and they were asked to post a bail of 1 million dinar (aprox. $800,000) in order to proceed with their clearance to leave the country. The money was ready, and everything seemed to be on track for the return of Göldi and Hamdani, expected for September 5th, 2009. But…

…on September 4th, 2009, the Geneva-based newspaper “Tribune de Genève”—putting a spoke in Switzerland’s diplomatic wheel as being considered an unacceptable provocation by Libya—published leaked police photos of Hannibal Gaddafi taken after his arrest in July 2008. The Swiss government’s aircraft, which was already in Tripoli waiting for Göldi’s and Hamdani’s release, returned to Berne without them.

On September 18, 2009, under the pretext that they needed to undergo a medical check-up in order to get permission to leave the country, Libyan authorities seized Hamdani and Göldi in front of their Swiss diplomatic escorts and detained them incommunicado for 53 days.

During Merz’ August 2009 visit, the two countries signed a treaty to normalize their relations. It contained an agreement that, within 60 days from signing it, an independent arbitration tribunal would be established with the goal of looking into the cicumstances surrounding the arrest of Hannibal Gaddafi and his wife. But Libya failed to meet its obligations, and the deadline for the treaty’s terms to be met elapsed on October 20, 2009. As a consequence, the Swiss government suspended the treaty early November 2009 and left the “quite diplomacy” path followed so far by applying visa restrictions for 188 Libyans—including the Gaddafi clan—instead. With hindsight, this turned out to be an important move, as it led to the internationalization of the crisis, now affecting the Schengen zone comprised of 25 European EU and non-EU countries that have abolished mutual border controls.

The Libyan response wasn’t long in coming: On November 30, 2009, Hamdani and Göldi—both sheltered in the Swiss embassy in Tripoli already for months—were sentenced to 16 months in prison and fined for visa violations. While Hamdani was cleared of charges in February and allowed to leave the country, Göldi left the embassy on February 22 to start serving his sentence in jail. Further, Libya stopped issuing visas for citizens of Schengen-zone countries. This action forced the EU to intervene in the Swiss-Libyan crisis, since many of its member countries have close economic ties and vested interests in Libya and could therefore not afford a further escalation of the crisis.

Triggered by Switzerland’s smart and necessary move of internationalizing the row, it is ultimately thanks to the mediation of Spain’s Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and a number of high-ranking German and European diplomats—who helped put pressure on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to agree to a positive outcome—that Libya suspended the visa ban it imposed on citizens of Schengen countries, therefore allowing a de-escalation of the diplomatic crisis and Max Göldi’s return after almost two years in Libya.


Main Source: swissinfo – foreign affairs
Image: © SEBASTIAN DERUNGS/AFP/Getty Images


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