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Why was Gaddafi given the keys to the city of Madrid?

City Hall argues that protocol demands foreign leaders be recognized, despite dissenting view of United Left group

Protocol holds that when heads of state come to Madrid on official visits, the mayor has to present them with the golden keys to the city, honoring its agreement with the central government. This week, it was Irish President Mary McAleese's turn to accept this token. But what if the honored visitor is someone who bombards his own people, as Muammar Gaddafi is doing?

The Libyan dictator received the keys to the city of Madrid in December 2007. Mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón said at the time: "We celebrate seeing Libya in the fold of the international community, and perceiving it as an ally in what must be our common cause: a world in which peace and the rejection of violence [...] must be the driving force of our daily lives."

Neither the conservative Ruiz-Gallardón nor the central government, which after all was responsible for inviting Gaddafi to Spain, could possibly imagine what the Libyan leader was going to do three years later once the past three months' surprising chain of events had been set in motion across the Arab world. The offering of the tribute is set out in the protocol and ceremony bylaws, but City Hall sources stress it is the Foreign Ministry that determines who should receive the golden keys.

In recent years numerous heads of democratic states, including Colombia, Argentina and South Korea, have been to the Spanish capital and accepted a key. But other recipients included King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (in June 2007); Chinese president Hu Jintao (November 2005); the head of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh (January 2008), and the Vietnamese leader, Nguyen Minh Triet (December 2009). And, of course, Gaddafi.

Although the keys are awarded at a ceremony that is attended by the entire city council, the representatives of United Left (IU) have stayed away on more than one occasion. A few weeks ago, they refused to witness the presentation of keys to Israeli President Simon Peres in protest over the treatment of Palestinians.

"We didn't go to Gaddafi's, either, and I don't think we need to explain why," said IU spokesman Ángel Pérez, adding that his group never goes to ceremonies celebrating heads of state who do not respect human rights. "We weren't there when [the keys] were presented to the Chinese president or the Saudi king. Personal respect for these people notwithstanding, I don't think we should reward people who represent repression, the death penalty or abuse of women." Yet even Pérez admits that the city is bound by protocol rules established by the state.

"We don't decide Spain's foreign policy," notes Deputy Mayor Manuel Cobo. "We gave [keys] to Gaddafi, but also to Hugo Chávez."