A Libyan court has sentenced two Swiss businessmen to 16 months in prison for visa irregularities and tax evasion, it has been confirmed by the Swiss government.
Rachid Hamdani and Max Göldi have been held in Libya since July 2008 after the arrest in Geneva of a son of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi on charges, later dropped, of mistreating two domestic employees
The Swiss foreign ministry confirmed the sentences on Tuesday evening and said the men were tried in absentia and were still in the Swiss embassy in Tripoli.
Foreign ministry spokesman Lars Knuchel told the Swiss News Agency that the two men had been "sentenced on Monday for violating visa laws".
He added that the foreign ministry was in close contact with the men's relatives and was coordinating the next steps.
The men are reported to have one week in which to lodge an appeal.
Engineering giant ABB, which employs one of the detained men, said that it had "taken note" of the judgment, but made no further comment.
On Wednesday Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz said in one television interview that he was surprised by the Libyan move, especially because the men had already been detained for 16 months in Libya. In another interview, he added that the decision showed that Libya was turning back into a state governed by the rule of law and it was therefore a step forward.
An anonymous Libyan source told the AFP news agency that the businessmen were also fined 2,000 dinars (SFr1,650) each. They had faced a third charge of failing to respect rules for companies working in Libya.
In addition it was reported that the 16 months the men had already spent in Libyan custody would not count towards their sentence.
Earlier on Tuesday the Libyan official was quoted as saying that the two were present at the one-day trial and were taken immediately to a prison to serve their terms. The discrepancy with the Swiss government's version of events could not be immediately explained.
Libya's move has provoked cautious reactions within Switzerland as well as speculation about whether the decision had been provoked by the Swiss vote in favour of banning minarets on Sunday.
Geneva-based Hasni Abidi, director of the Study and Research Center for the Arab and Mediterranean World, said he thought there was a clear link between the two events.
But Geri Müller, president of the foreign affairs committee of the House of Representatives, told the Swiss News Agency that Libya had long said it would mount a trial against the two men and for this reason it was difficult to know whether the sentences were a result of the vote, in which around 57 per cent of the population said no to minarets.
He said that it was important not to give up hope over the two businessmen.
Geneva sociologist and Libya expert Jean Ziegler said he thought the conflict was based on Libya wanting ransom money and that a deal would have to be made behind the scenes for the two Swiss to be set free.
The news of the sentencing comes a month after the Swiss government announced it was suspending a treaty aimed at normalising relations with Tripoli.
On November 4 Bern said Libya's "systematic refusal" to cooperate with Switzerland in the case of the two Swiss prompted that decision. The men have been prevented from leaving the country for more than a year and were moved to an unknown location in Libya in September.
Switzerland described the abduction as a "violation of international law".
On November 9 the foreign ministry said Hamdani and Göldi had been returned to the Swiss embassy in Tripoli and were "as well as can be expected under the circumstances".
The men were returned to the embassy without an explanation.
Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey welcomed their re-emergence, and said she had spoken by telephone to both men, who were "relieved" to have been returned to the embassy. They told her that they had not been mistreated.
On November 12 Libya's foreign ministry announced that Hamdani and Göldi would be charged and tried "by the end of the year".
Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaïm said the case of the two Swiss had nothing to do with the arrest of Hannibal Gaddafi and said the pair had entered Libya on tourist visas, now expired, but had been involved in business dealings during their stay.
Libya also criticised "systematic solidarity" for Bern by European countries in imposing Schengen area visa restrictions on Libyans. A spokesman said Libya had protested to European ambassadors and threatened to respond in kind if the measure continued.
The men's plight has become the most visible sign of a dispute that stems from the 2008 arrest in Geneva of a son of Moammar Gaddafi, Hannibal, and his pregnant wife. The couple had come to Switzerland for the birth of their child.
Geneva police briefly took them into custody on accusations they had abused their domestic staff while staying at a luxury hotel in the city.
After two nights in detention, they were released on bail and left the country. The staff were later compensated, and the charges were dropped. The bail money was returned.
Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz went to Tripoli in August 2009 and apologised for the arrest, triggering heavy criticism at home for doing so. During his visit he signed an agreement with the Libyan prime minister to normalise relations. However, the deadline for its terms to be met elapsed on October 20.
On Sunday 57.5 per cent of Swiss voters approved a ban on the construction of minarets in Switzerland. Although the Swiss government opposed the initiative, the move has sparked an outcry across the Muslim world.
swissinfo.ch and agencies
July 15, 2008: Hannibal Gaddafi and his wife Aline are arrested at a Geneva hotel after reports that they have mistreated two servants. After two nights in detention, the couple are charged with inflicting physical injuries against the servants. The Gaddafis are released on bail and leave Switzerland.
July: Two Swiss nationals are arrested in Libya. Swiss businesses are forced to close their offices and the number of Swiss flights to Tripoli is cut. Bern sends a delegation to Libya.
January 2009: Talks are held in Davos with Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, one of the Libyan ruler's sons. A diplomatic delegation travels to Tripoli.
April: Hannibal and his wife, along with the Libyan state, file a civil lawsuit against the Geneva authorities in a Geneva court.
May: Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey visits Libya, reporting "significant progress".
June: Libya withdraws most of its assets from Swiss bank accounts.
August: Merz, who meets the Libyan prime minister but not Gaddafi, apologises in Tripoli for the arrest. Swiss appoint arbitrator for international tribunal.
September: Libya does not let the two Swiss nationals leave the country, breaking a promise made to Merz that they would be free to return to Switzerland before September 1. Libya names its representative for the tribunal. Gaddafi and Merz meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. The two nationals disappear after undergoing a medical check-up in Tripoli.
October: A Swiss delegation returns empty-handed from Tripoli. A 60-day limit for normalising relations between Switzerland and Libya passes with no sign of the two Swiss hostages held by Tripoli. The Swiss cabinet expresses irritation over Libya's "systematic refusal" to implement agreements between the two countries.
November: Swiss ministers suspend treaty seeking to normalise relations with Tripoli and say they will pursue visa restrictions for Libyans.
December: Two businessmen allegedly sentenced to 16 months in prison and fined SFr1,600.