Libya to put Swiss businessmen on trial

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Two Swiss businessmen detained in Libya amid a diplomatic row with Bern will go on trial before the end of the year.

Tripoli – Two Swiss businessmen barred from leaving Libya since July 2008 amid a diplomatic row with Bern are to go on trial later this year for tax evasion and over immigration laws, a senior official said on Thursday.

"The two Swiss citizens will be tried before the end of the year," Khaled Kaim, the deputy Libyan minister of foreign affairs, told a news conference.

He said the two men are charged with fiscal fraud and with violating immigration laws as well as trade regulations, in the latest twist to a 15-month standoff between Bern and Tripoli.

But they must leave the Swiss embassy where they have sought refuge and seek a private address in order to be served with notice that they will be put on trial, Kaim said.

"In line with the law, they must have an address so that justice can be carried out," Kaim said. "They can go back to their homes (in Tripoli) or to a hotel but they must leave the embassy."

Max Goldi, a senior manager at the Swedish–Swiss engineering giant ABB, and fellow Swiss Rashid Hamdani, who works for a small construction firm, were arrested in July 2008 in a tit-for-tat measure after the brief arrest in Geneva of one of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi's sons, Hannibal Kadhafi, and his wife.

Libya initially refused the two men exit visas and charged them with alleged immigration offences but they were later released on bail and allowed to stay at the Swiss embassy.

In August, they were due to be flown home under a deal struck by Bern and Tripoli.

But instead the two went missing in mid-September after they were invited out of the Swiss embassy for a medical check-up and were returned only on Monday.

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey has accused Libyan authorities of "kidnapping" them.

But Kaim denied they had been abducted and told AFP earlier on Thursday that the pair had been "transferred" out of the embassy amid reports a commando operation was being planned to free them.

"The two Swiss nationals were not kidnapped nor did they go missing," Kaim said. "Their transfer was decided following reports in the Swiss media that a commando operation might be launched to free them."

He said Libya had sent a diplomatic note to the Swiss embassy in Tripoli informing it that the men were to be transferred.

"We also asked the Libyan charge d'affaires in Bern to ask for explanations and a denial of the reports of a commando operation but the Swiss authorities refused to respond," he added.

Their ordeal began after Hannibal Kadhafi and his wife were briefly arrested in a Geneva luxury hotel over allegations that the couple had mistreated two servants.

That arrest in July 2008 triggered a bitter diplomatic row between Bern and Tripoli, which launched a series of retaliatory sanctions, including a freeze on some business ties with Switzerland.

Tripoli and Bern have tried to patch their differences and Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz earlier this year made a controversial apology over the Kadhafi arrests.

Kaim said Bern must "stop politicising this case in order not to jeopardise the situation" of the Swiss businessmen.

"I don't understand why the Swiss government and press insist on linking a court case to the diplomatic row," he said.

On Wednesday, Hamdani's wife urged Libya to free her husband in statements on Swiss television. "I urge the Kadhafi family to show its human side ... and to return my husband to me," she said.

AFP / Expatica

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