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Libyan "promises" lost in translation?

Keystone

A letter from Libya to Switzerland regarding the release of two Swiss businessmen held there for a year could have been misinterpreted by President Hans-Rudolf Merz.

This content was published on September 8, 2009 - 21:38

But Geri Müller, president of the Swiss foreign affairs committee, which discussed the letter and the Swiss-Libyan diplomatic crisis on Tuesday, voiced his support for Merz and said signs from Libya were "not that bad".

The letter sent by Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Ali Al-Mahmoudi to the Swiss president on August 26, published in Tuesday's NZZ newspaper, said the legal process for the businessmen's alleged immigration violations is "under way" and the Libyan general prosecutor is dealing with the matter.

"We anticipate that the procedures will be completed in a matter of days. Based on the normal course of things in similar situations, we believe that their case will be determined very soon and they will be able to travel outside of Libya before the end of this month," it stated.

The Swiss president had interpreted this letter as a written promise that the two men - detained in Libya since July 2008 - would be allowed to fly home before September 1, as part of a deal he had reached with Libya.

This follows verbal assurances Merz said he received when he travelled to Libya on August 20 to apologise for the "unjustified" arrest in Geneva last year of Gaddafi's son Hannibal Gaddafi and daughter-in-law, accused of abusing their domestic staff during a stay in Geneva in July 2008. The apology led to widespread criticism in Switzerland.

Not clear-cut

But Swiss newspapers and several parliamentarians on Tuesday voiced concern over the letter.

The NZZ newspaper said Libya's written promises were not "clear-cut".

"It's questionable how the formulation 'we believe' is interpreted," added the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper.

Christian Democrat Kathy Riklin told the Tages-Anzeiger Merz's assurances were based on a "poor commitment".

And Christoph Mörgeli of the rightwing Swiss People's Party compared the letter to a ticket for the national lottery: "When I buy such a thing, I also hope I'll win."

Backing

But following Tuesday's foreign affairs committee meeting with Merz and Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, committee president Geri Müller voiced his support for the Swiss president.

"The letter could have been interpreted as a promise that the hostages could leave Libya before the end of August," he told journalists. "The formulation 'we believe' could easily be understood that things could go quickly."

He added that Merz's judgment was not just based on this one letter, but on other written documents and emails exchanged with the Libyan authorities after August 20.

"But there is no 100 per cent promise, and something clearly prevented their expected rapid return," said the Green Party parliamentarian.

Following the briefing it was clear that the various Libyan parties involved were not always in agreement, said Müller.

The process is continuing and there is no point debating the precise terms of the letter, he said.

But it would be "stupid" to make the two Swiss in Tripoli stand trial, he added.

Quiet diplomacy

According to Müller, the cabinet now wants to pursue quiet diplomacy with Libya.

Merz and Foreign Minister Calmy-Rey made no comment after Tuesday's meeting.

But Müller confirmed they had replied to parliamentarians' questions, some of which indicated that Swiss patience had reached its limits.

It was also announced on Tuesday that House of Representatives and Senate committees intend to examine the handling of the agreement reached with Libya by the cabinet and Merz.

In an interview in the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper last Sunday, Libyan deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaim said Switzerland's expectation to see the two men come home was likely based on a "misunderstanding".

"Our prime minister promised to undertake some action before the end of August," Kaim told the newspaper.

He said Libya kept its word by allowing the state prosecutor to meet twice with the Swiss businessmen, one of whom is staying at the Swiss embassy in Tripoli.

However, the government cannot force the hand of the prosecutor, Kaim said, adding that he hoped a decision would be taken soon in favour of the two Swiss.

Simon Bradley, swissinfo.ch and agencies

Timeline

July 15, 2008: Hannibal Gaddafi and his wife Aline are arrested at a Geneva hotel after police receive 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.

July: Bern forms a task force and sends a delegation to Libya. Two Swiss nationals arrested in Libya are released from jail.

September: The two servants decide to withdraw their complaint against Gaddafi and his wife.

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 arbitator for international tribunal.

September: Libya does not let the two Swiss nationals leave the country, breaking the promise it made to Merz that they would be free to return to Switzerland before September 1. Libya names its representative for the tribunal.

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