Max Göldi, the Swiss businessman jailed in Tripoli, could be released well before his four month sentence is up, European diplomats have told swissinfo.ch.
Spain, which currently holds the presidency of the European Union, has managed to reach a “settlement” with Libya, but Switzerland must also be prepared to play its part, said one top diplomat who wished not to be named.
Some are even predicting that Göldi could be pardoned by Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi before the middle of March.
Switzerland’s Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey has so far merely said that Bern, benefiting from “the solidarity of the European Union”, is doing “everything in its power” to bring Göldi back to Switzerland. But it warns that the situation remains “difficult and delicate”.
The dispute between Switzerland and Libya was on the agenda of a meeting in Brussels on Thursday of the interior ministers of the Schengen countries, attended by Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf.
During the meeting, the ministers reaffirmed their solidarity with Switzerland. In a report Spain said Switzerland is to be supported by the Schengen countries, that Switzerland and Libya would have to intensify their diplomatic relations, and that the EU would work to strengthen its "tentative steps" towards a solution.
Ahead of the meeting, however, some European diplomats, speaking anonymously, were prepared to say more.
There is still a need for “immense prudence”, one of them told swissinfo.ch, although the “intense mediation efforts” to reach a solution to the Swiss-Libyan crisis “are beginning to bear fruit”.
He pointed out that a second Swiss national, Rachid Hamdani, had now been allowed to return to Switzerland, and predicted that Göldi’s release “will certainly not be a matter of months”, despite the fact that he had received a four month sentence for violating Libyan visa regulations.
Both Göldi and Hamdani had been prevented from leaving Libya since July 2008 and had faced the same charges over their visas and over conducting business illegally in the country. Hamdani was eventually cleared of the charges and returned to Switzerland on Tuesday.
The men’s troubles started a few days after the brief detention in Geneva of one of Gaddafi’s sons, Hannibal, and his wife, accused of mistreating two of his servants. The charges were dropped when the servants withdrew their complaint, having been paid compensation.
The early release of Göldi, who meanwhile has been placed under the diplomatic protection of the entire EU – guaranteeing that he will be well treated in prison – is described by diplomats as part of a “settlement” which the EU has reached with Libya to end the stand-off which has now expanded to include most other European countries, putting everyone in “an uncomfortable situation”.
The settlement is based on the memorandum of understanding worked out by Spain on February 18 when it brokered talks between Calmy-Rey and her Libyan counterpart, Moussa Koussa. However, Libya refused to sign it.
The memorandum proposes a step by step process leading to a solution. As soon as Göldi has left Libyan territory, Switzerland will cancel its list of about 150 Libyans who are being refused a Schengen visa – allowing them to travel freely between the 25 member states of Europe’s Schengen zone – and will also stop its "systematic" opposition to the granting of Schengen visas to other Libyans.
Tripoli, for its part, will cancel its decision to refuse short-stay visas to citizens resident in the Schengen area.
An arbitration body, to be chaired by Germany, will then undertake the task of examining issues arising from the arrest of Hannibal Gaddafi, and both Libya and Switzerland will agree to respect its conclusions.
Finally, Switzerland will express its “sincere regret” for the “illegal” publication of police photos of Hannibal Gaddafi in the Tribune de Genève newspaper on September 4, 2009. It must also undertake to track down, prosecute and punish – in particular with a fine, since Tripoli is demanding “compensation” - the person responsible for the leak, according to a precise timetable which Bern must announce within 30 days.
“For the moment, the only thing we are interested in is ending the deadlock,” one European diplomat said. “It is not yet the right moment to talk about Switzerland’s behaviour.” Italy and Malta have accused Bern of misusing the Schengen system for political purposes to resolve its bilateral difference with Libya.
Under the Schengen agreement, visas issued for entry to one of its member countries are normally valid for the entire zone, but any one country can request all the others not to issue a Schengen visa to certain persons.
The Swiss do indeed have the right to prevent the free movement within the Schengen area of Libyans whom it believes endanger public order in Switzerland, as the EU commissioner for home affairs, Cecilia Malmström, made clear on Wednesday.
But a European diplomat told swissinfo.ch that it was still legitimate to ask whether Bern should not have consulted its partners formally before drawing up its blacklist of Libyans.
There have already been calls for the rules to be changed, but diplomats say no decision will be taken on Thursday.
Tanguy Verhoosel in Brussels, swissinfo.ch (Adapted from French by Julia Slater)
July 15, 2008: Hannibal Gaddafi and his wife are arrested in Geneva and charged with abusing their staff. They are released on bail and leave Switzerland. The servants are later compensated and charges withdrawn.
July 08: Swiss nationals Max Göldi and Rachid Hamdani are arrested in Tripoli. Swiss businesses are forced to shut and the number of flights to Tripoli is cut.
August 09: The Swiss president apologises in Tripoli for the arrest.
September: Göldi and Hamdani cannot leave the country despite a promise they would be freed by September 1.They disappear after undergoing a medical check-up in Tripoli. They are returned to embassy on November 9.
November: Swiss ministers say they will pursue visa restrictions for Libyans.
November: Göldi and Hamdani sentenced to 16 months in prison and fined. In January 2010 this is cut to 4 months for Göldi, and Hamdani found not guilty.
January - February 2010: Hamdani cleared of second charge of conducting business illegally. Göldi given modest fine.
February 14: A Libyan newspaper reports Switzerland has drawn up a blacklist of 188 top Libyans.
February 15: Libya stops issuing visas to citizens of nations in the Schengen zone.
February 17-18: Swiss, Libyan, Italian, Spanish and Maltese foreign ministers try to hammer out a solution.
February 22: Göldi hands himself over to Libyan authorities to start four month prison term. Hamdani obtains an exit visa and leaves for Tunisia. He arrives in Switzerland on February 23.