March was a good month for Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. He received high-profile apologies from both the United States and the European Union. The apologies were at the expense of Switzerland, the country against which Gaddafi has officially declared “holy war.” Switzerland has a tradition of neutralism in international conflicts, but could not avoid a nasty conflict with Libya. Trying to remain “neutral” in the Swiss-Libyan conflict, the US and the EU grovel before the Libyan despot.
The conflict between the Alpine republic and Libya began in July 2008, when Hannibal Gaddafi, the then 31-year old son of the dictator Muammar Gaddafi, savagely beat up two of his servants in the President Wilson Hotel in Geneva. The Swiss police arrested Gaddafi jr.; he was released on bail after two nights in a cell. In retaliation, Libya took two Swiss businessmen as hostages, imprisoning them for “visa violations.”
Switzerland soon dropped the charges against Gaddafi’s son, but Libya kept the businessmen under house arrest. One year later, in August 2009, Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz traveled to Tripoli. To secure the release of the hostages, he apologized to Gaddafi for the brief detention of his son. Gaddafi released one of the hostages, the Muslim Swiss citizen Rachid Hamdani, but refused to accept the Swiss apologies. Libya kept the other businessman, the ethnic Swiss Max Göldi, in prison.
Gaddafi’s son continues to cause mayhem wherever he goes. Two weeks ago, a photographer waiting for Gaddafi at a nightclub in Istanbul was attacked by the Libyan’s bodyguards. Last December, British police had to intervene at Claridge’s, one of London’s top hotels, when Hannibal Gaddafi hit his 29-year old wife, a former model, in the face and broke her nose. The British police did not arrest him, however, but allowed him to go to the Libyan embassy. In 2005, Hannibal Gaddafi had been arrested in France after beating his pregnant girlfriend at a Paris hotel. He was later given a four-month suspended prison sentence for the assault.
The November 2009 referendum, in which 57.5% of the Swiss voters approved a ban on the construction of new minarets in Switzerland, made Libya even angrier. Libya announced a boycott of Switzerland, and called for the dissolution of the country. On February 24, 2010, Gaddafi declared jihad against the “faithless” Swiss.
In an attempt to downplay the terrible implications of Gaddafi’s appeal for unlimited violence against Switzerland, US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said that the call for jihad against Switzerland was “lots of words … and not necessarily a lot of sense.” Instead of defusing the situation with his “joke,” Crowley made matters even worse. Gaddafi took the comment as a personal insult and threatened that there would be “negative repercussions” for American oil companies in Libya. On March 10, both Crowley and the American government offered their apologies to the Libyan dictator. He accepted them, and said that Tripoli would resume relations with Washington “in a manner of mutual respect.”
The unfortunate Max Göldi, meanwhile, has been moved to a damp, smelly windowless cell in the wing of a Tripoli jail where he is imprisoned with 90 of the most dangerous criminals of Libya.
Last November, following Gaddafi’s call for the dissolution of Switzerland, Bern drew up a blacklist of 188 extremist Libyans, including Gaddafi and his son, who would “for reasons of public and national security” no longer be allowed to enter Switzerland. Since Switzerland is a member of the so-called Schengen zone – the borderless travel zone grouping the EU countries (minus Britain and Ireland), plus Switzerland, Norway and Iceland – a Swiss ban also affects all the other Schengen zone countries. The terms of the Schengen agreement oblige all members to refuse visas to citizens of third countries blacklisted by fellow Schengen group nations.
In retaliation for the Swiss blacklist, Libya stopped issuing visa to citizens of all Schengen member states.
But instead of backing the Swiss, as they are obliged to do under the Schengen treaty, the EU countries threatened to expel Switzerland from the Schengen zone unless it drop the blacklist against the 188 Libyans.
In late March, the Swiss gave in to EU pressure. Tripoli hailed the decision as a victory over Switzerland.
The Swiss feel snubbed by the EU. Miguel Angel Moratinos, the Foreign Minister of Spain – which currently holds the EU presidency – flew to Libya to apologize on behalf of the EU for the imposition of the travel ban. “We regret and deplore the trouble and inconvenience caused to those Libyan citizens. We hope that this move will not be repeated in the future,” he told Gaddafi.
Mr. Moratinos was joined by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Of all the EU countries Italy has the closest ties to Libya and had been pushing hard for the expulsion of Switzerland from the Schengen group if Bern did not repeal the blacklist.
The EU apology to Libya has reinforced anti-EU feelings in Switzerland, even in traditionally pro-EU circles. Swiss parliamentarian Mario Fehr, a Social-Democrat, called it “a regrettable collective gesture of boot licking.” The Tribune de Genève newspaper wrote that “the EU caved in shamefully.” The Zurich-based Tages-Anzeiger wrote that the EU bears a huge responsibility. “This conflict is more than a row over the fate of a Swiss hostage.”