Did lifting Libyan visa ban help Max Göldi?

"He's getting used to prison": Max Göldi on his way to a Tripoli jail Keystone

Almost a month after a ban barring top Libyans from entering much of Europe was lifted, many questions remain on how doing so has helped Swiss captive Max Göldi.

This content was published on April 22, 2010 - 21:50

The blacklist was ostensibly the last card Switzerland had to play in pressuring Libya to release the engineer held in a Tripoli jail. Today officials are mostly mum on what, if any, progress has been made to get him out.

Göldi, a manager for firm ABB, has now completed two months of a four-month sentence for visa violations that many say is retribution for the brief arrest in 2008 of the son of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi in Geneva. Libya denies the connection.

Spain’s deputy ambassador to Bern, Alfonso López Berona, says his country is still working to secure Göldi’s release on humanitarian grounds but that what happens next is largely up to the Libyans.

“We are waiting for a new meeting in Berlin,” he told

As for whether there’s any chance that Göldi could be released early, López Berona said: “Unfortunately I don’t have the slightest idea. This is something that I don’t think anyone could tell you. It’s completely up to the Libyans.”

Not like this

Another Swiss businessman, Rachid Hamdani, faced similar charges and spent 19 months with Göldi holed up in the Swiss embassy in Tripoli before being allowed to leave.

While he returned to Switzerland on February 23, Göldi was whisked off to jail to begin his sentence.

But as Göldi moved to a prison wing reserved for hardened criminals, some, including the Spanish, were confident that the crisis would be solved within hours or days of Switzerland tearing up a list that kept the Gaddafi family and other top Libyans from entering 25 European countries.

Hamdani said in his first interview since his release that he too was shocked Göldi had not been freed.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Hamdani told the magazine L’illustré published on Wednesday. “Max should have followed me three or four days after my departure.”


Germany and Spain have been some of Switzerland’s friends in the case. A German foreign ministry spokesperson in Berlin said no specifics about the situation could be made public.

“The only message I can give the Swiss people is that we are following the issue with interest,” the spokesman told, asking that no name be used. “We can’t give any details on any alleged mediation.”

The EU had pressured Switzerland into giving up its blacklist after Libya retaliated and imposed a blanket entry ban on members of Europe’s Schengen Zone, a common, single-visa area that encompasses most of Western Europe.

Shortly after Switzerland withdrew its ban, the Libyans did the same. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle offered to help.

“The German government hopes the conflict between Switzerland and Libya will soon be over in every respect,” his ministry said at the time. “That also includes the release of Swiss national Max Göldi at the earliest possible date. In the future, too, Germany is willing to use its good offices to help both sides solve their remaining problems.”

Open question

But how much help has trickled in remains unclear. Amnesty International spokesman Daniel Graf said he had no word – official or otherwise – of any concrete steps being taken to secure Göldi’s release before the end of his sentence.

For its part, the Swiss foreign ministry said this week it could only confirm that Göldi’s case had not been dropped.

“The mediation process is continuing,” spokesman Adrian Sollberger wrote in an email. “But we can’t discuss strategic questions.”

Libyan law allows for some prisoners to be released after serving two-thirds of their sentences. For Göldi, that would mean in about three weeks.

For the time being, both the foreign ministry and Amnesty say Göldi’s health and mental state have improved, as have his living conditions.

“He can take warm showers and regular walks around the prison courtyard,” Sollberger wrote. “The strength and calm that Max Göldi has shown in his difficult situation is remarkable.”

“He’s getting used to prison,” added Graf, who remains in contact with Göldi’s family. Göldi can also write letters home, which must be in English so Tripoli guards can read them.

What happens after Göldi serves the whole sentence is still anyone’s guess. Would he even be allowed to leave then?

“We have no guarantees on anything,” Graf said. “It’s an open question.”

Tim Neville,

Hamdani talks

In a seven-page article in the French-language magazine L’illustré published on April 21, Rachid Hamdani reveals new details about his ordeal in Libya.

Libyan police began cutting the power and water supply to all Swiss offices and locking the doors the day Geneva police released Hannibal Gaddafi, son of leader Moammar Gaddafi, who was accused of abusing his staff in the city in July 2008. Police rounded up about 25 managers of Swiss firms but only two of them were Swiss – Hamdani and Göldi.

Hamdani spent ten days in jail with “appalling hygienic conditions” followed by months at the Swiss embassy. He said they could leave the grounds but had no passports. Plain-clothes officers followed them everywhere.

To help pass the time, the embassy bought a ping-pong table. The Swiss charge d’affaires easily beat both Hamdani and Göldi.

The Libyans whisked the two away for 53 days at an undisclosed location. He says they were well treated and the conditions were fine. It was psychologically hard, he said, being cut off for so long.

Once Hamdani got his passport and exit visa, he went to Tunisia in a car with German diplomatic plates. It didn’t really sink it that he was free until his plane touched down in Zurich. It’d been 19 months. He’d missed the birth of a grandchild.

“I want to thank everyone who supported us with their messages,” he told the magazine. “It was extraordinary, really quite moving."

As for how the ordeal has changed him, Hamdani said he'd rather forget the experience.

“It doesn’t do anything to rehash it all. You have to forget it, but I won’t be able to until Max is home.”

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