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Libya frees Swiss businessman, lawyer says

Swiss businessman Max Goeldi has been freed from a Libyan jail, his lawyer says, raising the prospect Libya and Switzerland can draw a line under their damaging diplomatic row.
Max Goeldi
Swiss businessman Max Goeldi sits inside a police vehicle in front of the Swiss Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, in February.Abdel Meguid Al-Fergany / AP
/ Source: Reuters

Swiss businessman Max Goeldi has been freed from a Libyan jail and is preparing to go home, his lawyer said on Thursday, raising the prospect Libya and Switzerland can draw a line under their damaging diplomatic row.

Goeldi was serving a four-month sentence for violating immigration rules but his supporters say he has been an innocent pawn in a dispute between Switzerland and oil exporter Libya that at one point also sucked in the United States and Europe.

Goeldi has been barred from leaving Libya since July 2008, days after Swiss police arrested a son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on charges — later dropped — of abusing two domestic employees. Libyan officials deny any link between the two cases.

"Goeldi has been freed," his Libyan lawyer Salah Zahaf told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"He is in good condition physically and morally. He is in a hotel in Tripoli right now and on Saturday we will start making arrangements for an exit visa so he can return home."

Goeldi, head of Libya operations for Swiss engineering firm ABB, was due to complete his sentence on Saturday but was released two days early, the lawyer said.

The lawyer declined to disclose which hotel Goeldi was staying in, saying he wanted some privacy and time to rest.

There was no immediate confirmation from the authorities in Switzerland that Goeldi had been released.

Goeldi was put on trial along with another Swiss citizen, Rachid Hamdani but Hamdani was allowed to leave Libya in February after a court cleared him of the charges.

"I am very happy for him and can't wait to see him soon," Hamdani, who also holds Tunisian nationality, said on French-language Swiss television late on Thursday night. "It's a huge feeling of relief."

Diplomatic fallout
The July 2008 arrest of Hannibal Gaddafi at a luxury lakeside hotel in Geneva prompted an angry response from Libya.

It stopped oil exports to Switzerland, withdrew millions of dollars in assets from Swiss banks and earlier this year Muammar Gaddafi declared a "jihad" on Switzerland. His officials said he meant a trade embargo, not a holy war.

The row showed that the Libyan leader is still prepared to take on Western governments, even though it is several years since he renounced illegal weapons programmes and brought his OPEC member country out of international isolation.

Some of the foreign investors who have rushed to Libya since international sanctions were lifted in 2004 have been unsettled by the dispute, seeing it as a sign that business interests in Libya are vulnerable to political interference.

For over a month this year, Libya stopped issuing visas to most European citizens in retaliation for a Swiss travel ban on senior Libyans, including members of Gaddafi's family.

Libya's government also warned U.S. energy companies operating in Libya their interests could be hurt after a U.S. State Department official made scathing remarks about Libya's stance toward Switzerland. He later apologized.