The last official representative of Switzerland in Libya seems so pitiable as he unburdens himself to his American counterparts on Sept. 3, 2009.
Stefano Lazzarotto, chargé d'affaires of the Swiss Embassy, gave off the outward appearance of being happy "but his physical appearance -- gaunt and fatigued -- betrayed the internal stress that the Swiss-Libyan conflict has forced on him," according to a report sent to Washington from the US Embassy in Tripoli.
The report goes on to quote Lazzarotto as saying: "I even receive calls in the middle of the night from Bern. They do not understand the kind of pressure I am under. I have lost seven kilos in the past 10 days."
By that time, the crisis that Lazzarotto had been sent to Libya to solve had already been going on for 14 months. It was one of the most complicated challenges Swiss diplomats have ever faced. As US diplomatic reports now show, it proved to be too much.
The drama began on July 15, 2008. On that day, police in Geneva arrested Hannibal al-Gadhafi, son of Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, in his suite at the Hotel President Wilson after two servants complained of being physically mistreated, an accusation which Gadhafi Jr. denied. The police detained Hannibal for two days before releasing him on bail of 500,000 Swiss francs (€372,000, $505,000) and allowing him and his wife to leave the country.
Looking for Revenge
Libya's ruling family wanted revenge. It immediately severed all trade relations with Switzerland, and it shut down the offices of Swiss companies in Libya. But, in the end, the real crisis revolved around the fate of two Swiss businessmen who had been working in Libya, Max Göldi and Rachid Hamdani. On July 19, 2008, the Libyans temporarily detained them and forbade them from leaving the country. For the next two years, the two would remain Gadhafi's hostages.
Dispatches from the US Embassy in Tripoli provide an inside look into the affair. They show just how helpless Swiss diplomats acted and just how isolated they were from European Union diplomats. They also reveal for the first time how the US secretly supported the Swiss. The US Embassy in Tripoli was proved a place where Swiss diplomats could go to voice their concerns. The Americans lent them a sympathetic ear -- and then cabled everything they heard back to Washington.
The conversation that the exhausted Lazzarotto had with his American counterparts on that September day came almost two weeks after a memorable event in the spat between Switzerland and Libya. Hans-Rudolf Merz, Switzerland's president at the time, had traveled to Libya and apologized on his people's behalf. But the visit would ultimately prove a humiliation for Switzerland -- because, even after the apology, the hostages were not freed.
At the time of the conversation, Lazzarotto wasn't yet sure of the outcome of Merz's visit. He had only just assumed his post in July and had started a three-week vacation in August. But his holiday ended after three days when he got a call saying that he had to come back and help Switzerland's president negotiate an agreement in Libya.
'A Stressful Week'
Lazzarotto told US diplomats of "a stressful week of middle-of-the-night negotiations at the Corinthia Hotel" and about how he and one of his co-workers from Bern had slept in a car outside the hotel for two nights. He noted that the Swiss had agreed to almost all of the Libyans' demands.
Merz and Libyan Prime Minister Bagdadi Mahmudi had discussed the fate of the two Swiss businessmen, Lazzarotto reported. Libya had pledged to allow the two to leave the country before September 1, the ambassador said. It was seen as a major victory -- but by the time of the Sept. 3 conversation with the US, they were still being held.
Lazzarotto was anxious. He said he was "constantly" telephoning his Libyan contacts, but he also seemed to be somewhat sympathetic to the Libyan position. "I am half Italian," Lazzarotto noted, according to the US dispatch,"and I understand time differently than my Swiss-German colleagues in Bern."
Lazzarotto spoke of the tense atmosphere within the Swiss Embassy. The two hostages were initially elated that they might soon be heading home, but were now becoming increasingly depressed. The two were living in apartments above the embassy -- Lazzarotto said that he and a colleague had moved in as well to help boost their morale. Since none of them could sleep at night, they played ping pong to kill time. Afraid that he might miss a crucial phone call, Lazzarotto reported that he hadn't left the embassy since August 31.
'Typically Swiss Thinking'
American diplomats posted in Tripoli had been closely monitoring the whole ordeal since it began in July 2008 with Hannibal's arrest. But they didn't get involved themselves until the fall of 2009. Primarily, they observed that Libya was allowing their rage to interfere with their economic interests. They were kept up to date on the affair by Daniel von Muralt, Switzerland's ambassador to Libya at the time.
As the situation progressed, Muralt became increasingly critical of Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey. On Jan. 27, 2009, Muralt told US Ambassador Gene Cretz that Bern didn't understand the cultural influences behind the Libyan point of view. "We started off much too soft and are probably too soft now," he said, adding that Switzerland had practically no leverage and that his boss, Calmy-Rey, displays "typically Swiss thinking." A few weeks later, Muralt went into early retirement and Lazzarotto took over in July 2009.
It was then, however, after the fruitless trip by President Merz, that the darkest chapter of the affair began. The Libyans continued to refuse to grant the two Swiss captives permission to leave the country. Instead, on Sept. 18, 2009, they lured them into a trap and abducted them in broad daylight.
That was when the US Embassy became significantly more involved in the ordeal. On Sept. 22, Lazzarotto once again met with an American diplomat, and was amazed that his US counterpart already knew about the abduction. Bern had instructed him to keep the matter secret.
Searching in Vain for Support from Europe
Lazzarotto was unaware that the Swiss had already officially asked the US to intervene. And the American ambassador was astonished. His conversation with Lazzarotto, he cabled to Washington, "revealed a disconnect between Bern and its embassy in Tripoli. While the Swiss government seems to be building alliances at the deputy foreign minister level to advocate on its behalf, it is rendering the Swiss Embassy weak and vulnerable by keeping the chargé d'affaires uninformed."
The Americans asked whether there was any truth to the rumor that the Libyans kidnapped the hostages out of fear that the Swiss might take military action. Lazzarotto said the rumor was "laughable" -- but chances are he didn't know himself. Only later did it emerge that the Swiss government actually had considered a military raid to free the hostages.
It was then that the first signs of friction between the Swiss and EU countries began to emerge. The Portuguese ambassador, one of the most vehement critics of the Swiss, complained that they have provoked the Libyans by recently exercising their veto right to prevent Moammar Gadhafi from obtaining a Schengen visa. Gadhafi had only wanted the visa, the ambassador added, because he wanted to stop off in Portugal on the way to the UN General Assembly in New York.
The Swiss had already discovered back in mid-2009 that their Schengen veto could be an effective weapon against Libya. With it, they could prevent Libyan officials from entering Europe. The EU, however, was not impressed.
The Swiss could, however, rely on the US for support. On Oct. 10, 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a brief stop in Zürich. The US ambassador in Bern informed her in advance that the Swiss had requested US assistance in the matter of the two abducted Swiss citizens. "I strongly believe," he wrote, "it is in our interest to do what we can, given Switzerland's many efforts to assist US citizens in Iran."
When Michael Ambühl, a high-ranking Swiss diplomat, visited Tripoli on October 19, he notified US Ambassador Cretz that Switzerland planned to assume a "more aggressive" approach. He said Switzerland was planning to expand the circle of Libyans denied Schengen visas. Ambühl told Cretz, however, that he "despaired of getting any coordinated help from other European nations."
On November 9, the hostages were unexpectedly dropped off in front of the embassy. The next day, Lazzarotto thanked the US ambassador and told him what the two had said about their captivity. They were taken, they thought, to Suraj, a suburb of Tripoli, where they were kept in solitary confinement for two months. They weren't allowed to make any telephone calls, but they were given plenty of food as well as iPods full of Libyan music.
Soon after they were freed, however, the Libyans indicated they wanted to put Hamdani and Göldi on trial for visa and tax violations. No one expected the trial to be a fair one.
'Under the Cover of Darkness'
Lazzarotto asked ambassadors from the United States and a number of EU countries to sit in on the trial so the Libyans didn't think that they could act "under the cover of darkness." But Ambassador Cretz turned him down, arguing that any American intervention had to remain discrete.
In a dispatch, Cretz noted that other ambassadors also showed little interest -- and that anger toward the Swiss was growing among the Europeans. Italy's deputy ambassador, for example, criticized Bern for using its Schengen veto for unintended "political purposes." Cretz cabled to Washington that "the Swiss have alienated the very European governments they are now trying to recruit for support."
On November 30, a Libyan immigration court sentenced the two Swiss men in abstentia to 16-month prison sentences. The pair had resumed living in the Swiss Embassy and, fearing that he might soon be expelled from the country, Lazzarotto asked the Americans if they could provide them with food if the need arose. The Americans, though, said they didn't want to be publicly connected to the matter.
On February 7, the situation looked to be relaxing. A Libyan court commuted Hamdami's sentence and ordered his release. Ambassador Cretz wrote that "Swiss hardball tactics ... appear to be paying dividends." Four days after being cleared of charges, Hamdani received his passport back, and Göldi's prison sentence was reduced from 16 months to four. Switzerland hoped he too would be set free.
But four days later, the situation re-escalated. Libya suddenly decided not to allow any Schengen citizens to enter the country. Chaos immediately broke out at Tripoli's airport. Dozens of Europeans were refused entry and forced to return home.
Risk of a 'High-Profile Crisis'
Once again, a "dejected" Lazzarotto showed up at the US Embassy looking for solace. He told the Americans that Libya obviously wanted something more from Switzerland, but he didn't know what. He wondered if the only solution left was "to cut diplomatic relations." If the situation didn't get resolved soon, Ambassador Cretz wrote in a dispatch, there was a risk of a "high-profile crisis" that could affect foreign companies. A day later, he cabled that Germany was the only EU country still backing Switzerland in the dispute.
It is at this point that the diplomatic record breaks off, closing off the curtain to this behind-the-scenes view of the crisis as seen by diplomatic eyes.
On February 22, Libya threatened to raid the Swiss Embassy in order to arrest Max Göldi. In a show of solidarity, ambassadors from several EU countries gathered at the embassy. At the end of the day, Göldi surrendered and was carted off to jail, while Hamdani was permitted to leave the country.
Three days later, Gadhafi delivered a speech in which he called for "holy war" against Switzerland. On March 24, Switzerland succumbed to EU pressure by lifting its veto blocking members of Libya's regime from entering the Schengen zone. On June 12, 2010, Swiss Foreign Minister Calmy-Rey traveled to Libya, where she signed an agreement negotiated by a number of countries, including Germany. After a round of haggling in Gadhafi's tent, Max Göldi was allowed to board a plane and fly home to Switzerland.
Calmy-Rey was proud of her accomplishment, saying: "I put my best diplomats on the case."
Since early November, Stefano Lazzarotto has been serving as Switzerland's ambassador to Macedonia. Things are much quieter there.