Why is Italy honoring Libya's Qaddafi on coup anniversary?

As trade between Italy and Libya expands, Italy to honor Qaddafi with Air Force's aerobatics team. But some Italians compare this 'undeserved' honor to Scotland's release of Lockerbie bomber.

MILAN, ITALY – Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi will celebrate the 40th anniversary of his military coup next month with an air show by one of the world’s best aerobatic squads – the Italian Air Force’s “Frecce Tricolori” or Tricolor Arrows.

The aerial homage to Qaddafi and other signs of Italian respect – Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi intends to attend the Sept. 1 ceremony – is yet more evidence of how Qaddafi has rehabilitated his image in Europe after being accused of bankrolling or harboring agents who carried out deadly attacks on civilians there in the 1980s.

But it's also spurring strong criticism here in Italy. The opposition Democratic party says it objects to spending so much money honoring Mr. Qaddafi: “How much does it cost us Italians to clear the image of the Libyan dictator?” asked Sen. Marco Perduca.

There are also emotional and historical issues at stake. Qaddafi followed up on his coup with the forcible expulsion of about 20,000 Italian nationals living in Libya at the time, whose possessions were confiscated. He said that was retaliation for Italy’s colonization of Libya decades earlier – despite Italy having agreed to pay $5 billion in reparations to Qaddafi's regime. (An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that reparations had been paid to the government Qaddafi had deposed.)

“As Qaddafi celebrates 40 years of his rules, we’re celebrating 40 years of humiliations” says Tripoli-born Giovanna Ortu, who heads an association of Italians expelled from Libya. “I really don’t see the need to give him all these honors, especially after the way he treated us."

( A story about the Italians who were expelled from Libya can be found here.)

Qaddafi’s government has been accused of harboring the terrorists behind the hijacking of Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985, which claimed the life of an American tourist. The following year Libya fired two Scud missiles at a US Coast Guard station on the Italian island of Lampedusa, though both missed their target.

But that all appears to be in the past. Libya and Italy have recently signed a number of economic deals, mostly over energy, and reached an agreement to try to stop illegal immigration from Africa. Mr. Qaddafi visited Rome for the first time in June.

“It’s so sad to see our leaders trying to pursue the economic interest at any cost, even at the expenses of the country’s own dignity” notes Ortu. “It is the same mistake that the British have made when they agreed to free Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi."

Megrahi was serving life in a Scottish prison for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 20 years ago, which murdered 270 people. Scotland says Megrahi has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and so gave him "compassionate release" to return home to be with his family. He was given a hero's welcome upon his arrival in Tripoli, in a rally of support that victims families believe was organized and paid for by Qaddafi.

Though the incident has raised British and US hackles (about 180 of those killed in the bombing were American citizens) it appears Mr. Berlusconi is not going to change his travel plans. Perhaps that's because there is money at stake. In recent years, Libyan government-linked companies have poured billions of dollars into Italian investments, including a stake in automaker Fiat and in Juventus, one of Italy's most popular professional soccer clubs.

Libya's expanded influence has been seen elsewhere in Europe. On the day Megrahi was flying home to be created by cheering crowds, Swiss President Hans Rudolf Merz flew to Tripoli to offer an unqualified apology for the "unjustified" arrest of Qaddafi's son Hannibal in July 2008.

Then, the younger Qaddafi was arrested and held for two days on charges he beat his maids while staying in Swiss hotel. Libya, which provides about 20 percent of Switzerland gas, swiftly retaliated by cutting energy supplies and arresting two Swiss businessmen. One of the two, the head of ABB's Libyan operations, has been living in fear for his life in the abandoned Swiss Embassy in Tripoli for the past year waiting to be allowed to go home, something that Qaddafi is expected to grant now that he's received the apology he demanded.

“I just cannot understand why so many European countries simply let Qaddafi humiliate them this way” says Ortu, who claims she has received a number of letters from “outraged Italians”, who are not related to the Libyan expats. “I know energy is important, but Qaddafi seems now an untouchable dictator, just as Saddam Hussein used to be 30 years ago.”

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