Press chokes on "bitter pill" of Libyan apology

Swiss papers were largely irritated that the country had apologised for upholding its own laws

President Hans-Rudolf Merz's apology to Libya for the "unjustified" 2008 arrest of leader Moammar Gaddafi's son and daughter-in-law has irked the Swiss media.

This content was published on August 21, 2009 - 10:53

Geneva police took Hannibal Gaddafi and his pregnant wife into custody on charges of beating their servants. They were later released on bail, but Tripoli limited trade, stopped flights and held two Swiss nationals. Hannibal talked of dropping a nuclear bomb on the country.

The criminal charges were eventually dropped but the matter quickly turned into a diplomatic quagmire that left Switzerland standing increasingly alone. The Gaddafi clan demanded an apology, which it finally got on Thursday after significant Swiss resistance.

The government offered an "official and public apology for the unjustified and unnecessary arrest" in an agreement signed in Tripoli.

That had editorial writers in western Switzerland seething. The country's leading French-language newspapers lamented the fact that the Switzerland was forced to its knees for upholding its own laws. Perhaps more troubling was the fact that no friendly country rose to Switzerland's side, they said.

"In this crisis Switzerland loses more than honour," said the Geneva-based Le Temps. "The country has slowly taken stock of its powerlessness."

Poor Mr Merz

Switzerland's interests in Libya are economic and the chilly relations have threatened to see Swiss firms in the oil-rich nation replaced by competitors. Around half of Swiss crude oil imports come from Libya.

Other countries have also been working to improve relations with the Gaddafi clan, notably the British who agreed on Thursday to release a convicted Libyan intelligence agent involved in the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 over Scotland that killed 270 people.

"Commercial sap will begin to flow again, the hatchet is buried in the desert sand," Fribourg's La Liberté said. "Everything has ended well then?"

Not really, the paper continued. In an editorial called "Poor Mr Merz!", the commentator noted that one day the president of the confederation was kneeling before the United States over a tax dispute with big bank UBS and the next, he was down on his knees before "the mad dog of the Middle East," as former US President Ronald Reagan once called Gaddafi.

"The 'success' of Mr Merz was apparently a bitter pill he had to swallow while holding his nose," the paper wrote. But he was also forced to swallow "pride, dignity and the values of a law-abiding state that justifies the arrest of a big bully. But confronted with Libya's irrationality, did Mr Merz have a choice?"

Wrong language

He didn't, said the NZZ, in agreeing that the pill was indeed bitter. Moreover, the affair was a not a glaring failure, either.

"The official pardon doesn't go against any lawful principles," the NZZ said. "It is an opinion expressed by the government about the commensurability of a police action in Geneva. Not more, not less."

In addition, it said, it makes sense that the countries have also agreed to set up a neutral arbitration panel to establish what really happened in a Geneva hotel on July 15, 2008, that left two domestic servants complaining of abuse.

But the real sore spot is that Switzerland failed to recognise early on that the Libyans weren't interested in diplomacy, the paper said. Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey had fought for a year to thaw the ice, which had hardly melted.

"For too long Switzerland spoke a language that an icy extortionist didn't understand at all," the paper said in a commentary called, "Gaddafi only speaks one language".

"Switzerland apologised to the Libyan leader because in Geneva, everyone is equal before the law," the paper wryly noted. "This is a bitter pill, but necessary."

Bow to the stronger

Really? asked the Tribune de Genève in an article called "Apologies, lies and humiliation".

"Bern would have certainly preferred for Geneva and the police and prosecutor to apologise, but authorities there have not yielded. Rightly so," it said.

The newspaper noted Merz's "flat-out apology" to Libya means bowing to the laws of the stronger party, which in this case is a totalitarian regime, "while negating the principles of a law-abiding state".

Le Temps agreed, adding that Swiss nationals who have not been allowed to leave Libya since the matter erupted are still not necessarily free to go. Their release depends upon the "good faith" of the Libyans. "Switzerland is paying a very high price," it said.

"No one is duped," the Tribune de Genève concluded. At least some good news came out of the apology, the paper added sarcastically: "Switzerland will not be nuked as Gaddafi dreamed."

Tim Neville,


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.

July 17: After two nights in detention, the couple are charged with inflicting physical injuries and using threats and force against the servants. They are released on bail and leave Switzerland.

July 19: 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 23: Libya threatens to stop crude oil deliveries to Switzerland. Bern forms a task force and sends a delegation to Libya.

July 29: Two Swiss nationals arrested in Libya are released from jail.

August 13-16: A Libyan delegation arrives in Switzerland for talks.

September 2: The servants withdraw their complaint after reaching a financial arrangement with Hannibal, ending the legal process.

October 10-12: Reports say Libya is to stop oil deliveries and withdraw its deposits in Swiss banks, but it is later denied. Libya cuts its own airline's flights to Switzerland.

December 15: Swiss International Air Lines can no longer fly to Tripoli "for technical reasons".

January 31, 2009: Talks are held with Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, one of the Libyan ruler's sons, at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

January 25: A diplomatic delegation travels to Tripoli.

March 23: Italy offers to play a mediator role.

April 8: Hannibal and his wife, along with the Libyan state, file a civil lawsuit against the Geneva authorities in a Geneva court.

May 29: Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey returns from a visit to Libya focusing on two detained Swiss nationals. She says "significant progress" is made.

June 24: Calmy-Rey tells journalists of efforts to set up a meeting between Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz and Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi to clear the air between the two countries.

June 28: Libya withdraws most of its assets from Swiss bank accounts.

August 20: Merz apologises in Tripoli for the arrest. The finance ministry says the two detained Swiss businessmen will be released "soon". The countries agree on a "normalisation" of their relationship and the Libyan prime minister says the two countries will set up a joint committee to examine what he called the "tragic incident" in Geneva.

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