TRIPOLI, Libya – Two Swiss businessmen arrested in Libya amid a spat with Switzerland involving leader Moammar Gadhafi's son, are to go on trial on accusations of tax evasion and violating residency laws, a Foreign Ministry official said Thursday.
The two were detained in July 2008 on alleged visa violations — days after Swiss police arrested Hannibal Gadhafi and his wife for allegedly beating up their servants in a Geneva luxury hotel.
The businessmen — identified as Max Goeldi and Rachid Hamdani — were handed over to the Swiss embassy in Tripoli earlier in November, triggering expectations they would be released and allowed to return home.
But Undersecretary Khaled Keim said Thursday they would be put on trial and called on Switzerland not to make any links between the case and the issue of the "aggression" on the son of the Libyan leader.
"Libya has decided to put the two Swiss businessmen on trial, accusing them of violating residency laws and tax evasion," Keim said at a press conference in Tripoli.
Keim said Tripoli has asked the Swiss embassy to make the men available to Libyan authorities for trial dates and other court procedures.
Keim did not say when the two would go on trial but expressed disappointment that Switzerland did not follow up on an August agreement between the two countries to set up an independent arbitration committee to discuss the "aggression" on Gadhafi's son.
Yet Keim insisted there was no link between the cases, stressing that "any connection between the two issues will hurt the interest of the accused."
The Swiss Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the latest development, as did Goeldi's employer, the engineering firm ABB. Switzerland has maintained the two men were "abducted," and demanded their release.
Hannibal Gadhafi was held for two days in Geneva before being allowed to return home. The complaint was eventually dropped after the two servants received compensation from an undisclosed source.
Switzerland apologized for the manner of the arrest and subjected itself to possible compensation claims as part of the August agreement reached in Tripoli, but later suspended the deal after repeated attempts to secure the release of Goeldi and Hamdani failed.
The saga has badly damaged relations between the two countries and prompted calls in Switzerland for the resignation of Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz, who staked his credibility on the men's release.
In addition to detaining the men, Libya recalled some of its diplomats from Switzerland, suspended visas for Swiss citizens, withdrew funds from Swiss banks, stopped crude oil shipments and reduced flights to the Alpine country.
Libya escalated the dispute in September by transferring Goeldi and Hamdani to a secret location "for their own security," citing the purported "threat that Switzerland might free them militarily," according to a Libyan government letter quoted by the Swiss Foreign Ministry.
The Swiss suspension of the August deal was greeted with cheers at home. Bern also tightened visa rules for senior Libyan officials, a move observers said could directly affect the Gadhafi family's ability to travel easily around Europe.
Despite denying any link between the cases, Keim talked at length about the spat over Ghadafi's son, calling his arrest in Geneva a "premeditated act."
"Our aim is not to get a Swiss apology but an independent investigation into the circumstances of the arrest and the trial of those who violated the laws," he said.
Keim also accused the Swiss embassy in Tripoli of obstructing the issuing of so-called Schengen visas for Libyans that permit travel to and within some 25 European countries. He said Libya has objected to the European Union over it.