By Salah Sarrar and Stephanie Nebehay
Tripolo/Geneva - A Libyan court handed 16-month jail terms to two Swiss businessmen for visa offences, a Libyan judicial source said on Tuesday, in a move likely to prolong a damaging rift between the two countries.
The men have been held in Libya since July 2008 following the arrest in Geneva of a son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on charges of mistreating two domestic employees.
Libyan prosecutors charged the two businessmen last month with visa irregularities, tax evasion and failing to respect rules governing companies working in Libya.
The case has outraged many Swiss and the government has come under criticism for its handling of the affair. Swiss media have described the two businessmen as "hostages".
A Swiss Foreign Ministry spokesperson confirmed the Libyan ruling in an email to Reuters. He said the sentences were handed down for alleged visa irregularities and that the two businessmen were at the Swiss embassy in Tripoli.
Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz visited Tripoli in August and issued a public apology to Libya for the arrest of Hannibal Gaddafi and his wife in a Geneva hotel.
But Merz failed to secure a return home for construction company employee Rachid Hamdani and Max Goeldi, Libya head of Swiss-Swedish electrical engineering conglomerate ABB.
The Libyan government says the businessmen's case and that of Hannibal Gaddafi are not linked.
In September, the Libyan authorities moved the two men from the Swiss embassy in Tripoli to an undisclosed location.
Switzerland said on November 4 it was suspending an agreement to normalise relations with Libya and five days later the Libyan government handed the men back to the embassy, raising hopes in Switzerland that they might be allowed to return home.
Those hopes were dashed when they were charged on November 12.
Switzerland has suffered most from the diplomatic spat. The brief detention of Hannibal Gaddafi last year prompted Libya to cut oil supplies to Switzerland and withdraw more than $5-billion in assets from Swiss banks.
Geneva's prosecutor dropped the case against the Gaddafis when the employees withdrew their formal complaint after reaching an undisclosed settlement.
The judicial source said the two men were also fined 2 000 Libyan dinars ($1 671) each. They have the right to appeal, the source added, without providing further details.
Carlo Sommaruga, a Social Democrat member of the Swiss parliament who had campaigned for the release of the businessmen, said on Swiss television on Tuesday night that the sentences were too heavy given the charges.
"It is something that is unacceptable from the point of a view of a state based on the rule of law," he said. "But it shows the nature of the Libyan regime." - Reuters