By Paul Peachey
A businessman wanted in France over claims that the Qaddafi family secretly bankrolled Nicolas Sarkozy bribed one of the ex-president’s senior officials to secure a commission on a Libyan aircraft deal, a London court heard.
Alexandre Djouhri, 59, sold a villa in the south of France for a vastly inflated price and funnelled some of the money into an account held by Claude Gueant, Mr Sarkozy’s former chief of staff, and his wife, French authorities claim.
French investigators believe the 500,000-euro payment came from a state-run Libyan fund which bought the villa in 2008 with an unsustainable plan to turn it into a medical centre for retired African leaders, said Ben Watson, a lawyer for the government.
France launched an inquiry four years later into reports that the Qaddafi family paid $50 million to help Mr Sarkozy fight his successful 2007 presidential election campaign in contravention of French election laws.
Mr Djouhri – who was described in court as a go-between for the French leadership and the Qaddafi regime – is wanted in France for fraud, money laundering and bribery in connection with the villa sale.
The French-Algerian businessman was arrested at London’s Heathrow Airport in January last year on a French-issued arrest warrant. The Swiss resident had been living in Geneva out of reach of French investigators and had declined opportunities to speak with investigators, the court heard.
Details of the payments emerged at the start of a three-day extradition hearing delayed after the prominent political fixer collapsed in a British prison with serious heart problems and required emergency medical treatment.
Mr Djouhri is fighting extradition, claiming that the case against him is politically-motivated because of his association with Mr Sarkozy. The former president was one of the leading advocates of a Nato-led military campaign that resulted in the overthrow and killing of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Mr Sarkozy has said the claims of illegal Libyan funding of his campaign were made in revenge for his backing of the rebels – and led to the failure of his 2012 re-election bid.
Mr Djouhri rose to prominence after acting as an attempted peacemaker between Mr Qaddafi and the rebels attacking the regime’s hold on Tripoli. He claimed that he was being targeted by a judiciary biased against Mr Sarkozy.
“It’s a fake arrest,” Mr Djouhri told The National before the start of Monday’s hearing. “It’s harassment.”
Mr Djouhri allegedly paid the money to Mr Gueant ensure he received a commission on the sale of Airbus aircraft to state-owned Libyan airline Afriqiyah Airways, said Mr Watson. He also wanted to ensure that he avoided tax liabilities from the villa sale, he said.
Mr Watson said there was no direct evidence linking the proceeds from the villa sale to the election funding scandal.
French investigators say that Mr Gueant later falsely claimed that the money came from the sale of two paintings rather than the villa. Days after receiving the payment, the money was used to buy an apartment in the French capital.
Mr Watson told the hearing in London that the villa was valued in 1998 at some 760,000 euros but was sold a decade later to the Libyan African Investment Portfolio (LAP) for more than 10 million euros.
Mr Djouhri’s legal team says he is not well enough to stand trial and is bringing evidence from senior French officials to claim the judiciary has unfairly targeted Mr Sarkozy and his allies.
“Mr Djouhri is seen as a close associate of Mr Sarkozy and go between … with the Qaddafi family,” said Jonathan Caplan QC, for Mr Djouhri.
The hearing continues
Paul Peachey has been based in London for The National since July 2017. He worked as a crime correspondent for a decade, and has been a staffer for newspapers and international news wires covering the UK, Middle East, Asia and Africa. He has worked on TV documentaries and produced radio programmes for the BBC.