Shortly before 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 17, Aisha Gadhafi, the Libyan revolutionary leader's favorite daughter, known at home by her nickname "Libya's Claudia Schiffer," stormed into the air-conditioned lobby of the exclusive Hotel President Wilson in Geneva, her eyes flashing in anger, her dyed blonde hair concealed by a black headscarf. She was accompanied by a group of men in dark suits.
Her brother Hannibal had just been released on a bail of 200,000 Swiss francs (€124,000) from custody in Geneva, where he had been held for two days. According to the police, he and his wife had physically abused two members of their domestic staff and held them against their will. It was not the first time that Hannibal, the black sheep among Gadhafi's children, had had a run-in with the police, but it was the first time that he was forced to spend time in jail.
Speaking to the waiting press, Aisha promptly launched into a tirade in Arabic, interrupted only by her interpreter. The arrest, she said, was "illegal, racist and anti-Arab," especially as her brother is the son of Moammar Gadhafi, the man who defied colonialism. She ended her press conference with the words: "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Whoever began the dispute is in the wrong!"
Then she strode outside and roared off in a convoy of black Mercedes limousines. Aisha, Hannibal and their entourage subsequently left the country in a private jet. It was a theatrical departure, but not the end of a bizarre story. In fact, it was only the beginning.
A diplomatic ice age then quickly descended upon relations between Switzerland and Libya. Gadhafi, Libya's 66-year-old dictator, who renounced terrorism in recent years and sought to portray himself to the rest of the world as a statesman, apparently refuses to accept such treatment of his son. He wants an apology, and until he gets it he plans to retaliate against the Swiss. Two days after Hannibal left Switzerland, Gadhafi sent his thugs to arrest two Swiss citizens in Libya, one of them the director of the Libyan office of the technology company ABB. Libyan officials claim that the two men had violated immigration rules and were thus being "treated like illegal immigrants." They were held in a Libyan prison, in a cell with several other detainees, a place characterized by "considerable promiscuity, tremendous heat and no hygiene," according to the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs. Swiss diplomats traveled to the Libyan capital Tripoli last week to secure the release of the two prisoners, but were unsuccesful in their first attempt.
Quelling Gadhafi's Anger
Libya has recalled its ambassador in Bern, stopped issuing visas to Swiss citizens and ordered Swiss companies like ABB and Nestlé to close their Libyan offices. Finally, Tripoli announced that it was stopping all oil shipments to Switzerland. This move would have been most damaging to Gadhafi's own company, Tamoil, which operates a refinery and about 350 gas stations in Switzerland. But the revolutionary leader was apparently so enraged over the Geneva arrests of his son and daughter-in-law that at first the consequences of his actions seemed to matter very little to him.
Tensions have, however, eased this week following difficult bilateral negotiations. The two Swiss prisoners were released on bail on Tuesday but told not to leave the country. On Wednesday the Swiss Oil Association told Swiss media that the supplies had resumed. It was not immediately clear exactly how the Swiss diplomats had managed to quell Gadhafi's anger.
Gadhafi has ruled his country through brutal oppression for the past 39 years. There is no freedom of opinion, and political foes are either murdered or thrown in prison. In the 1970s and 80s, Gadhafi fell into disrepute for his support of international terrorism, after being linked to incidents like the 1986 bombing of the La Belle nightclub in Berlin and the explosion of a Pan Am jumbo jet over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. But in recent years he has sought international recognition -- and his efforts have paid off, with both Europeans and Americans lifting sanctions against Libya.
A little over a year ago, Gadhafi removed the last major obstacle to his rehabilitation within the international community when he ordered the release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor. They had been accused of deliberately infecting patients in a Libyan hospital with HIV and spent eight years behind bars where they endured abuse and torture.
But now that his family's honor is at stake, Gadhafi has become his old -- angry and unpredictable -- self. He already knows that his son Hannibal is a troublemaker. But he is apparently convinced that he is the only person entitled to set his son straight.
Taking After their Father in Eccentricity
Officially, Gadhafi has eight children, although there is speculation that there may be more. When it comes to eccentricity, all of Gadhafi's children take after their father.
Gadhafi's first-born, Mohammed, 38, was long kept out of the public eye because he was the product of the Libyan dictator's first marriage. Today, he is the chairman of the Libyan Olympic Committee and controls the country's telecommunications industry.
The second-born, Saif al-Islam, 36, is considered a model son and a potential successor to his father. He attracted public attention for the first time 10 years ago, when he arrived in Vienna to attend a university there, and was accompanied by four bodyguards and two Bengali tigers. He developed a friendship with Austrian right-wing populist politician Jörg Haider, and when Vienna refused to extend Gadhafi's residency permit, his father threatened to expel all Austrians from Libya. But the Libyan leader never made good on his threats.
Today Saif al-Islam is seen as a pro-Western reformer. He is believed to be a driving force behind economic liberalization and an advocate of more democracy. His current pet project is a 5,000 square-kilometer (1,930 square-mile) nature preserve he plans to establish in northeastern Libya.
Gadhafi's third son, 35-year-old Saadi, is best known for his failures. He had hoped to become Africa's greatest footballer, and his father even gave him the Al-Ahly football club in Tripoli. Later, Saadi bought himself a spot as a player in Italy's premier league Perugia football club, a career that brought him only 15 minutes on the field. He gave up the sport after illegal substances were found in his blood during a doping test. Today he invests in European football clubs and the film industry, and occasionally launches into a public tirade against Israel.
Mutassim Billah, 33, the fourth brother, was once forced to flee to Egypt after allegedly being involved in an attempted coup against his father. But the senior Gadhafi eventually forgave his son and made him his national security advisor.
Then there is Aisha, 32, Gadhafi's only daughter and his favorite child. An attorney, she was part of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's legal defense team. Her father was apparently overjoyed, when she once appeared at Speaker's Corner in London and delivered a speech about the Irish terrorist organization, the IRA. "Blood of my blood!" Gadhafi allegedly proclaimed.
A Problem Child
Little is known about the two youngest sons, Saif al-Arab and Khamis, but Hannibal, who triggered the recent diplomatic crisis with Switzerland, has been a problem child for his father for years.
He began attracting attention while in school for his frequent public drunkenness and involvement in brawls. In September 2004, he was stopped by Paris police for driving down the Champs Elysées at 140 km/h (88 mph) at night. A year later, he destroyed his hotel room and beat up his pregnant girlfriend Aline, who was sent to a hospital as a result. His father brought him back to Libya and forced him to marry the girlfriend.
The couple had traveled to Geneva in early July because Aline was pregnant again and wanted to give birth in Switzerland. After noticing the Gadhafis' brutal treatment of their two servants, hotel employees notified the management and then contacted the police. On two occasions, Libyan diplomats managed to turn away authorities in the hotel lobby, but when the Swiss police returned a third time they stormed the Gadhafis' rooms, where they overpowered bodyguards and took the couple into custody.
The two servants, a Tunisian woman and a Moroccan man, told the authorities that the Gadhafis had repeatedly beat them with clothes hangers and belts. They even allowed the Geneva press to print photos of them and their injuries, with only their faces concealed. Doctors apparently testified that the abuses had in fact taken place.
"The day will come when they will pay for everything they did to me and the others," the teary-eyed Tunisian servant told Western Swiss Radio. "I don't understand why people do such things." Her fellow sufferer, the Moroccan, said that the Gadhafis would undoubtedly find someone to kill them, and that he feared for his life.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan