Norway and the Germa Lionel Case

Sailors were held and mistreated in Libya decades ago


Norwegian F-16 fighter jets took part in bombing of Libya during operation Odyssey Dawn (Photo: Forsvaret)

By John Erik Stacy

Norwegian jets have dropped hundreds of bombs in Libya this spring as part of the NATO-led campaign to hit pro-Gaddafi targets. But this is not the first time Norway has been in a tangle with Gaddafi. In 1984, Norwegians were forced to see the brutality of the dictator first hand as the crew of the Germa Lionel were tortured – and one crew member killed – by Gaddafi’s thugs.

It was early morning on the 5th of May when armed men from Gadaffi’s revolutionary guard stormed the Germa Lionel as it lay in Tripoli harbor. The crew was accused of using a light on the ship to send signals to land as part of an imagined coup. Chief Officer Bjørn Ivar Johansen beaten so brutally that his teeth were broken his skull fractured. Sailor Bjørn Pedersen died as a result of similar abuses inflicted by the captors. The surviving crew of 13 men were held and intimidated for another 67 days.


Germa Lionel in 1980 (Photo: Gunnar W. Christensen)

The Norwegian government worked through diplomatic channels to solve the Germa Lionel situation. It is difficult to understand why the response to such an insult against Norwegian civilian sailors was so soft – especially now in light of the current situation. Journalist Bjørn Hansen raised this question in a recent opinion piece. Hansen, who covered the inquiry back in August 1984, speculated that there was a “business as usual” attitude toward the regime. Norwegian interest in Libya were established and projected to grow.

The events this spring force us to take notice of the degree to which international entanglements connect to bullies like Gaddafi. In late February, as evacuations began, approximately 6000 US citizens were in Libya. Norwegian authorities struggled to account for its citizens and Statoil closed its offices in Tripoli. Britain estimated 3500 of theirs and the number of Chinese was reported to be about 20,000. That’s a lot of foreigners living in Libya. There must be a reason all these folks chose to live in the land of “the mad dog of the middle east.” Perhaps that reason is money? In light of this, Hansen’s suggestion seems a bit obvious. More interesting may be what else could have been done at the time and in the prevailing climate?

The Germa Lionel case was a window on the twisted disregard for humanity that is Gaddafi’s exercise of power. The case was all but unknown outside of Norway. Many remember the 1988 downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie and some remember the 1986 bombing of the La Belle disco in Berlin. We were again reminded of Gaddafi’s shenanigans when health workers, among them Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian intern, were accused of deliberately infecting Libyan babies with HIV in 1998 . But were there other “low profile” cases, like the Germa Lionel, ignored by the international media? Could the aggregate of such cases have been enough to push the world to stop “business as usual” had they been brought into the light?

Dagbladet quotes Chief Officer Johansen as saying that he hopes that Gaddafi will be chased from power, but that he not be followed by another despot. At this point Norway has its forces committed to help with the chasing. But perhaps we could have had a decade or two less of Gaddafi had the world – that is, the world’s media – paid more attention to “below the radar” cases like the Germa Lionel.

Footnote: The Germa Lionel was built in Singapore in 1979 for Gerner-Mathisen Shipping. Now it sails under Cambodian flag as the Nesibe E.

This was also published as the “On the Edge” opinion piece for the May 27, 2011 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email

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