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Former Swiss minister regrets fuss about hostage ransom comments

Moritz Leuenberger in 2010. Keystone / Lukas Lehmann

Former Swiss minister Moritz Leuenberger triggered outrage on Sunday when he said that “if a hostage has been released, a payment has probably been made”. He has now rowed back on his comments, blaming clumsy wording by a newspaper, which he nevertheless approved.

This content was published on February 9, 2021 - 12:36
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“If my statements have given the impression that the government ever paid ransoms to buy hostages’ freedom, I expressly regret this,” he told newspapers belonging to the TamediaExternal link group on Monday.

He maintained, however, that “something might have flowed through other channels” and in his opinion it is a “legitimate lie” for the government to deny this.

Leuenberger, a government minister from 1995 to 2010, made the “taboo-breaking” admission in an interviewExternal link with the NZZ am Sonntag which was focused on the idea of lying and untruths in the political and personal sphere.

Asked if he had ever not told the truth as a politician, Leuenberger said the standard denial made by Swiss authorities of having paid ransoms to release hostages was more about “preventing imitators and future hostage-taking” than it was the truth.

“If you explain this behaviour to the public, it’s accepted as a legitimate lie,” he said, before adding that untruths have a place in society as “social lubricants that help protect the interests of other parties”.

“Always sticking to the truth can sometime cause more problems than telling an untruth,” said Leuenberger, now 74 and retired.

‘Clumsy’

Although Leuenberger had made a similar argument in a book he wrote in 2007, his comments on Sunday triggered a wave of criticism, with many politicians and security experts saying he was undermining the credibility of Switzerland’s hostage policy.

Officially, the Swiss foreign ministry has always claimed that Switzerland does not pay ransom demands to free hostages, although rumours have circulated for a long time that this is not true.

“Switzerland’s position remains the same: it does not pay ransom money,” insisted a spokesman for the foreign ministry on Monday.  

When confronted with this criticism, Leuenberger said: “I attribute the strong reactions to the summary on the front page of the NZZ am Sonntag and to a formulation in the written version.” Although he had approved it, in retrospect he considered it clumsy.

He added that, to his knowledge, no ransom payments were ever decided in government during his term of office. “But sometimes it can be assumed that something might have flowed through other channels. Nevertheless, the government denies this. In my opinion that is a legitimate lie. And that is precisely my key message.”

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