Tue February 22, 2011

Italy Embarrassed By Ties To Libya's Gadhafi

Amid reports of violence in Libya, Italian newspapers were filled Tuesday with articles describing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's "very close" relations with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

The friendship — both personal and political — is beginning to be an embarrassment for Italy vis-a-vis its European allies, which have sharply condemned Gadhafi's violent crackdown on demonstrators.

Italian newspapers carry photos showing Berlusconi kissing Gadhafi's hand.

The two leaders are so close that when asked on Sunday if he had talked with his friend, Berlusconi replied, "The situation is unclear, so I won't disturb anyone."

Outraged opposition leaders called Berlusconi's silence "terrible and deafening."

But silence is a specific clause in the friendship treaty signed 2 1/2 years ago between the African country and its former colonial master.

Furio Colombo is one of a handful of members of Parliament who voted against it.

"Article 4 of the treaty," Colombo says, "demands that Italy will abstain [from] any intrusion, or even remarks or observations, or [from joining] actions of others against Libya or having to do with internal affairs of Libya."

Colombo says the treaty's military articles bind Italy too closely to Libya — "to the point that Italy engaged itself in denying its own territory or NATO bases in case of any dispute against Libya."

Last August, Berlusconi gave Gadhafi a hero's welcome in Rome, and the Libyan came with a surprise: Bedouin riders mounted on 30 thoroughbred horses flown in from Libya performed in what one daily quipped was a circus spectacle with Gadhafi acting as ringmaster.

The Libyan leader also received 500 young women — hired by a modeling agency and paid $100 each to listen to a lecture on Islam, which he said should be the religion of all of Europe.

Granted the solemn honor of lecturing at Rome University, Gadhafi caused even more controversy.

He said the word democracy derives from the Arabic for "chair," and he reached the surreal conclusion that democracy will be achieved only when all the people are seated on chairs.

Even some in government were disturbed, accusing Gadhafi of having transformed Rome into his own private Disneyland for his senile vanity. But Berlusconi had only words of praise for his guest.

"It is an advantage for everyone that relations between Italy and Libya have changed and are definitely positive," Berlusconi said. "Those who do not understand this and criticize Libya belong to the past and are prisoners of outdated ideas."

The friendship treaty gave Gadhafi a big role in the Italian economy — in the past two years Libya has invested nearly $40 billion here — making it the fifth-largest investor on the Italian stock market.

But on Tuesday, there was a massive sell-off of Italian companies with Libyan links.

The most controversial aspect of the Italy-Libya treaty is the clause under which Tripoli intercepts and takes back migrants who try to enter Italy by sea. In exchange, Italy pledged to invest $5 billion in Libya's infrastructure over the next 25 years as reparations for its bloody colonial rule early in the 20th century.

But Rome has been widely accused of turning a blind eye to human-rights violations in Libyan camps where would-be migrants are detained. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.