Libya campaign funding: Nicolas Sarkozy is back in court

By Neïla Latrous, and AFP
Posted on Monday, 15 June 2020 11:26

Former Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi, left, and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, right, leave after a signing ceremony at the Elysee Palace, Paris, Monday, Dec. 10, 2007. (AP Photo/Patrick Hertzog, Pool)

Eight years after the first allegations, Nicolas Sarkozy and his close allies appeared before the Paris Court of Appeal on 8 June to contest the validity of a criminal investigation into Libya’s alleged funding of his 2007 presidential bid. 

Their appearance before the court comes eight years after the first allegations.

France’s ex-president and his former ministers Claude Guéant, Éric Woerth and Brice Hortefeux – all under investigation except for the latter – have highlighted a series of nullities in the investigation opened in 2013 by the French judge Serge Tournaire, one year after the investigative website Mediapart published a document supposedly proving the existence of the secret funds.

Another central figure in the case, the businessman Alexandre Djouhri, who was under investigation and extradited by the British authorities to France at the end of January, has also filed several appeals. The requests of the accused are expected to be examined in closed hearings. Beginning in 2012, the Libya funding case gave rise to a multi-layered investigation with a cast of characters comprising politicians and sketchy middlemen. Our reporters help make sense of this complex affair.

The Gaddafi galaxy

From testimonies given by Libyan dignitaries to Tripoli secret service memos and allegations made by a middleman, a body of troubling leads has come together over the past seven years, bolstering the theory that Muammar Gaddafi sent cash-filled briefcases to Sarkozy’s presidential campaign team in 2007. The first allegations came from the Guide of the Revolution’s son, Saif al-Islam, when his father fell from power in 2011. In an interview broadcast by Euronews, the youngest of Gaddafi’s children heaped criticism on the then-French president: “Sarkozy has to give back the money he accepted from Libya to finance his electoral campaign. We financed his campaign and we have the proof […] and are ready to publish it.”

READ MORE Leaked conversation: Libya’s Gaddafi sought to replace Saudi Arabia’s ruling family

One year later, during the period between the first and second rounds of the presidential election, Mediapart published documents affirming that Tripoli agreed to provide funding of €50m to Sarkozy in 2006. Sarkozy pressed charges against the website. The investigation into the “publication of false information” was ultimately dismissed.

At around the same time, on 3 May 2012, the former Prime Minister of Libya, Baghdadi Ali Al Mahmudi, imprisoned in Tunisia, asserted, according to statements reported by his Tunisian lawyers, that Libya had indeed funded Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential bid. That same evening, a French lawyer claiming to also represent Al Mahmudi refuted that such statements were made.

A few days earlier, on 29 April, the body of the former Libyan Minister of Oil, Shukri Ghanem, was found near Copa Cagrana beach, a famous Vienna nightspot. Ghanem was a close friend of al-Islam and a crucial witness. His posthumous testimony was received by investigators four years later, in September 2016, in the form of a small notebook found at the home of Ghanem’s son-in-law in the Netherlands. His notes mention three transfers made to Sarkozy in 2007, representing at least €6.5m.

READ MORE The Hague vs Libya on justice for Saif al-Islam, Gaddafi’s son

On 22 May 2018, a fourth mainstay of Gaddafi’s regime spoke out on the France 2 television programme “Cash Investigation”. Bashir Saleh, ex-financier of the Jamahiriya, confirmed the existence of secret transfers sent by the Libyan regime to the former French president.

Sarkozy’s defence

The Paris public prosecutor’s office opened an investigation against “X” for corruption and influence peddling on 19 April 2013. At the time, the inquiry was led by the judge Serge Tournaire, who last summer was appointed as the first vice-chairperson of the Court of Nanterre responsible for investigations. He is the one who placed Sarkozy (on 21 March 2018), Woerth (on 29 May 2018) and Guéant (on 7 May 2015 and again on 17 September 2018) under formal investigation. Since his departure, the investigation has been taken over by the judges Aude Buresi and Marc Sommerer.

Sarkozy, charged with “passive bribery, illicit funding of an electoral campaign and concealment of embezzlement of Libyan public funds”, says he is a victim of “hate, mudslinging, mediocrity and slander”. In his appeals, the former head of state at first called for his presidential immunity to be recognised, in response to allegations that he agreed to offer quid pro quos to Gaddafi’s regime once elected.

READ MORE Probe Libya’s Fire Sale

As for earlier events going back to his stint as interior minister (2005-2007), Sarkozy and Hortefeux, his ex-deputy minister, maintain that their cases are in the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the Republic, the only court with the authority to try ministers for acts committed while in office. However, the solicitor general did not agree with this view and asserted, in his written closing statements, that the offences did not have any direct correlation with their ministerial responsibilities during that period. In addition, he demanded that the investigations conducted over the past eight years be verified.

Woerth, Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign treasurer, is challenging on his end the basis for his being investigated for “aiding and abetting the illicit funding of an electoral campaign”. At least €30,000 in cash had circulated at the campaign’s headquarters, according to testimonies gleaned by investigators, who suspect that this undeclared money is what’s left of the cash-filled briefcases sent by Libya.

Guéant, Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign director, who later on played a pivotal role in talks with former Libyan officials to free Bulgarian nurses, is under investigation for “forgery and falsification of documents, laundering of tax fraud proceeds by an organised group and passive bribery”. At the end of April 2013, a search of the former minister’s home led to the discovery of a €500,000 transfer into his bank account from a foreign source. An additional suspicious transfer of €25,000, from Jordan, was discovered that same day.

Yet, in this case, Guéant is suspected of having been paid €500,000 for his work involving EADS – now Airbus Group – for the middleman Djouhri, who was asking to be paid a commission for the sale of aircraft to the Libyan government. Guéant has maintained that the money primarily came from the sale of two paintings by the Flemish artist Andries van Eertvelt to a Malaysian lawyer. However, this version of events has been undermined by the court, which estimated the paintings to be worth €35,000. A Saudi businessman, Khalid Ali Bugshan, is also under investigation in this case. He is suspected of being involved in the €500,000 payment.

Guéant’s defence asserts that French law does not, in any case, provide for charges for the embezzlement of foreign public funds. Sarkozy’s legal team has used the same argument. In the investigation into the Libyan trail, another one of the former president’s associates is in the crosshairs: Thierry Gaubert, who was placed under formal investigation on 31 January for “conspiracy”.

What about the middlemen?

The testimonies – divergent for the time being – of two middlemen could be essential to the investigation. Firstly, there’s Ziad Takieddine. In December 2012, the Lebanese-French businessman, under investigation for the financial side of the Karachi affair, claimed in front of a judge that he possessed evidence of Libya’s funding of Sarkozy’s presidential bid.

Four years later, the same defendant, under investigation for aiding and abetting corruption and influence peddling, insisted that he handed over €5m from the Tripoli government to Sarkozy between the end of 2006 and early 2007, while Sarkozy was interior minister, and to Guéant, his chief of staff. No material evidence has been found. Takieddine was convicted of defamation last February, following a suit filed by Guéant.

Secondly, there’s Djouhri, the Algerian-French businessman who is allegedly the architect of the complex financial schemes meant to conceal the presumed transactions. During a search of his home in Geneva in March 2015, the discovery of Guéant’s bank details intrigued the magistrates. The two men are considered to be close.

Djouhri’s name is particularly present in the investigation into the 2009 sale of a villa in Mougins, in the French Riviera, to a Libyan fund managed by Saleh. According to the court, Djouhri is the actual owner of the house, which was sold at an inflated price to cover up the secret payments. Djouhri formally disputes this interpretation.

“That’s an invention and a machination, I’ve never had a villa as a front and I’ve never sold a villa to Bashir Saleh,” he said while in London this past March. He was later extradited and has lodged several appeals. The businessman disputes the validity of the European arrest warrants issued against him by French anti-corruption magistrates. Regarding the sale of the Mougins villa, Djouhri reproaches Judge Tournaire for acting outside the scope permitted by the investigation.

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