by Nick Mathiason and Jack Serle, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, London.
The Qaddafis spent . . .[restrict]four decades plundering Libya amassing private jets, fast cars and expensive properties the world over.
But next Friday could see what international corruption experts claim is the first repatriation of a major asset owned by the deposed Libyan rulers.
On Friday, at the High Court in London, the State of Libya will attempt to seize from Saadi Qaddafi, 7 Winnington Close, a Hampstead Garden Suburb mansion in a quiet cul-de-sac worth in excess of £10m.
The neo-Georgian, eight bedroom home complete with indoor swimming pool and private cinema was bought by the 38-year-old, high-living ex-footballer just six months before the start of the Arab Spring. Glentree, the estate agent which sold the property to Saadi said he made the decision to buy the house after a “quicker than normal” viewing.
Saadi, who is living in Niger, owns 7 Winnington Close through Capitana Seas Ltd, a British Virgin Island (BVI) company. It is understood that Capitana’s lawyers will not defend the application for repatriation which could mean the house reverts to Libya on Friday.
But Saadi’s legal representative, Nick Kaufman, a lawyer based in Jerusalem, said: “This is an issue of which my client and I am fully aware. My client is at present considering the legal options open to him to tackle this meritless claim.”
Easy to launder cash in the west
Libyan investigators say they were unable to establish Saadi as the owner of 7 Winnington Close until the British Treasury’s intervention. Treasury officials directly contacted authorities in the BVI, which is famous for protecting the identities of the ultimate beneficiaries of companies based there, who were forced to comply.
The lawyer hired by the Libyan embassy to handle the groundbreaking case is Mohamed Shaban. He stated he has had to establish that Saadi could not have bought the property on his official military wage of £34,000 as commander of Unit 48 in the Libyan Ministry of Defence.
“It would be imposible for him to make £10m in cash,” Shaban said.
“This is hugely significant,” said Robert Palmer, an anti-corruption campaigner at Global Witness. “It looks as if it’s the first asset recovery case related to the Arab Spring in London. It is a very complicated process requiring a significant degree of co-operation to identify an asset that is suspected of corruption and then take a case through the courts.”
More London assets on investigators’ radar
Shaban stated there are several other properties he is tracking in London which could form the next phase of investigations. And a senior asset recovery expert at a global institution stated that London’s network of private banks, desirable properties and luxury shopping made it a prime location for corrupt politicians and their families.
Earlier this week James Ibori, a former governor of one of Nigeria’s oil-producing states, pleaded guilty in at Southward crown court to 10 counts of money-laundering and conspiracy to defraud. British police accuse him of stealing £160m over eight years.
Senior asset recovery specialists suggest the process of repatriating money, property and other investments from fallen Arab dictators has been slow. So far the sum total of assets returned to Arab spring countries amounts to two planes that belonged to Tunisia’s former president Ben Ali and his brother in law. Estimates suggest that the Gaddafi family made off with cash and investments worth billions of dollars. But it is hard, they say, to separate state assets from those of the family and their cronies.
A leading London-based investigators involved in the repatriation of assets associated with the former Mubarak regime said: “These people have been in power for years and it will take years to unravel. We have seen in recent cases how they use corrupt lawyers and accountants (to move money).”
The investigator pointed to the case of Sani Abacha, the kleptocratic former president of Nigeria who in the mid-nineties is estimated to have siphoned as much as $5bn from the oil-rich country he ruled for five years. “We are still finding Abacha money 14 years after he died.”
It is said that Egyptian investigators have sent out “blanket requests” for stolen assets which have overwhelmed banks. A lack of co-ordination between newly established agencies has seen needless duplication of requests.
There are also reports of tensions and mutual mistrust between western banks and the Libyan Central Bank which is leading attempts to trace Qaddafi’s assets. [/restrict]