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Asylum case casts shadow over Swiss-Egyptian relations

Switzerland's decision to grant Mohamed El-Ghannam political asylum has caused diplomatic tension with Egypt Keystone Archive

Switzerland's decision to grant political asylum to a former Egyptian government official who has threatened to bring legal action against President Hosni Mubarak has cast a shadow over bilateral relations, which have been gradually improving since the Luxor massacre in 1997.

The Federal Refugee Office confirmed on Wednesday it had granted Mohammed al-Ghannam political asylum, but declined to say why for data protection reasons.

Al-Ghannam was forced to leave his job as director of the Egyptian Interior Ministry’s legal investigations department in 1998 after he published a number of articles denouncing police corruption and human rights abuses in Egypt.

“I am totally surprised and astonished at the Swiss decision,” the Egyptian Ambassador to Switzerland, Nagui el-Ghatrifi, told swissinfo.

“Before any party decided to deal with this gentleman, it should take ample measures to ensure that what he is claiming has any proportion of truth. I have never heard his name mentioned as a defender of human rights,” he said.

Ghannam, who claims Mubarak is responsible thousands of deaths and the torture of many others, is looking into whether the president can be tried in Belgium for human rights violations. Under Belgian law, anyone can be tried for human rights abuses regardless of the nationality and where the alleged offences took place.

Ghatrifi said the accusations being made against the Egyptian leadership were “very serious”, but he did not go as far as to deny them. The ambassador said he did not yet know if he would be making representations to the Swiss government.

“I’ve asked my government for more information. Once I get those facts, I will let you know,” he explains.

The ambassador was keen to play up the “friendly and cordial relations” between his country and Egypt, as was the Swiss foreign ministry. Both sides have exerted a great deal of effort to improve bilateral ties since Islamic militants killed 58 tourists, 36 of them Swiss, at Luxor in November 1997, after which Switzerland advised its nationals not to travel to Egypt on holiday.

“At present, relations are good. After the Luxor tragedy and after the problems surrounding our travel recommendations, things have now returned to normal,” said foreign ministry spokesman, Livio Zanolari.

“I’ve heard nothing about the Egyptians lodging representations with the Swiss. For time being I believe relations remain as good as they have been until now,” he told swissinfo.

The 43-year-old Ghannam says that, despite obtaining a Swiss entry visa in 1999, the Egyptian authorities prevented him from leaving the country until May this year, when he managed to travel to Switzerland.

Ghannam praised the way the Swiss embassy in Cairo handled his case, saying it had acted with wisdom and intelligence.

by Roy Probert

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR