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Merz out on a limb over his visit to Libya

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President Hans-Rudolf Merz has defended his apology to Libya over the arrest last year of a son of Moammar Gaddafi by Geneva police.

This content was published on August 21, 2009 - 21:06

He said it was the only way to break a deadlock in economic relations with the north African country and secure the release of two Swiss nationals held for allegedly violating visa regulations.

Merz's visit to Tripoli on Thursday prompted mixed reactions in Switzerland. Critics have accused him of groveling before an unreliable authoritarian regime and breaking the rules of the collective responsibility of the seven-member cabinet.

He also faces criticism of violating the sovereignty of canton Geneva and interfering with the powers of the judiciary.

"I take full responsibility. I would do it again," Merz told a news conference in Bern on Friday.

He said he achieved his aims of restoring normal relations with Libya, seriously strained for the past 12 months and securing the release of the two detained Swiss nationals.

He said the crisis had escalated fast and had been completely deadlocked, despite numerous attempts by the foreign ministry to seek a solution.

"Swiss businesses had to suspend many of their contacts and two Swiss citizens were not allowed to leave Libya," Merz said.

He added that the public apology was necessary to win pledges by the Libyan prime minister, Al-Baghdadi Ali Al-Mahmoudi, that the two Swiss would be allowed to leave the country by September 1.

Wording

Merz dismissed criticism of the wording of his apology as quibbling.

"It is done. Let's turn the page now," he said.

In Tripoli on Thursday, Merz described the arrest of Hannibal Gaddafi and his wife in July 2008 as "unnecessary". However, he stressed he did not say it was illegal.

Critics say his statement contradicts earlier assurances that Switzerland would not apologise to Libya over a police matter under the jurisdiction of the Geneva cantonal authorities.

Merz said his cabinet colleagues knew about his carefully planned mission to Tripoli, but not about the contents and the precise wording of the accord. He added he would put the issue on the agenda of the next cabinet meeting to deal with possible disagreements.

Sabotage and pressure

Jean Ziegler, an expert on Libya and adviser to the foreign ministry, said Merz had undermined the efforts of Swiss diplomacy.

He told public radio that the foreign ministry was close to a deal which would have included a statement of regret, rather than an apology, and the immediate return of the detained Swiss.

In a similar vein, Dick Marty, speaker of the Senate foreign affairs committee, said he was baffled by the initiative of the finance minister who holds the rotating post of Swiss president this year.

"Switzerland was forced to apologise for no reason," he is quoted as saying. Merz should have insisted on the immediate release of the detained businessmen, according to Marty.

Hasni Abidi, director of the Study and Research Center for the Arab and Mediterranean World in Geneva, believes pressure came from the business community for the Swiss government to break the impasse.

Libya is a market with a huge potential for multinational companies, Abidi told the French AFP news agency.

Switzerland's watchmaking companies as well as the machinery and the pharmaceutical industries provide the bulk of Swiss exports to Libya.

However Abidi is pessimistic about a swift normalisation.

"The apologies are an investment with no return," he said. There is no sign that Libya is prepared to open a new chapter in bilateral relations, he believes.

Geneva

Under the agreement signed in Tripoli, a three-person independent arbitration tribunal is to examine the conditions of the arrest of the Gaddafi couple.

On Friday the Geneva authorities said they were concerned that the agreement gave foreign arbiters the right to lay blame on the Geneva police.

It vowed to resist all action that did not conform to individual liberties guaranteed by the Geneva constitution.

Geneva's stance is backed by constitutional lawyer Thomas Fleiner at Fribourg University who sees the tribunal as undermining Swiss law and its federalist system, which gives the cantons wide-ranging autonomy.

Fleiner was quoted by the Swiss News Agency as saying the accord between Switzerland and Libya aimed at restoring normal relations was "very unusual". However, he conceded that the deal might be only way to obtain the release of the Swiss businessmen.

Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch with input from Federico Bragagnini

In brief

Libya is one of Switzerland's five key export markets on the African continent. It is also Switzerland's main supplier of crude oil.

It provides around 50% of Swiss crude oil imports and held around SFr6.5 billion in Swiss bank accounts in 2007.

Swiss exports in 2007, mainly in the watchmaking and machinery as well as pharmaceutical industries, rose by 16.3% to SFr278.6 million.

In a previous diplomatic spat in 1997 Tripoli banned Swiss citizens from entering Libya to protest against Switzerland's refusal to grant a student visa to a son of Colonel Gaddafi.

In return the Swiss authorities tightened entry regulations for Libyan citizens. The conflict was solved in April 1998.

Political contacts between the two countries also returned to normal after the UN-imposed sanctions were lifted in 2003.

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The Gaddafi affair

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.

August: A Libyan delegation is in Switzerland for talks.

October: Libya cuts its own airline's flights to Switzerland.

December: Swiss International Air Lines can no longer fly to Tripoli.

January 2009: Talks are held 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 returns from a visit to Libya. She says "significant progress" is made. Efforts are underway to arrange a meeting between President Hans-Rudolf Merz and Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.

June: Libya withdraws most of its assets from Swiss bank accounts.

August: Merz apologises in Tripoli for the arrest.

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