Hunt for Qaddafi's millions intensifies

The Libyan government is redoubling its efforts to find some of the hundreds of millions of dollars it believes were syphoned overseas by former dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

It is speculated that Libya's Muammar Qaddafi may have died the world's richest man, with assets of more than US$200 billion squirrelled away around the world. Max Rossi / Reuters
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The Libyan government is redoubling its efforts to find some of the hundreds of millions of dollars it believes were siphoned overseas by Muammar Qaddafi, with individuals and assets in Brazil, South Africa and Dubai under the spotlight.

"We are trying very hard now to repatriate Qaddafi's wealth," said Ali Mansour Asbali, the newly appointed Libyan commercial attaché in Abu Dhabi. "We will probably never be able to say for certain how much was there, but we know there are hundreds of millions of dollars."

The process of repatriating money invested overseas by the Qaddafi regime has been fraught with problems since the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA), the country's sovereign wealth fund, began the process in 2011.

The problems came to a head recently as the prime minister Ali Zeidan replaced Mohsen Derregia as head of the LIA with the deputy governor of the Libyan central bank amid claims that Mr Derregia had not lived up to expectations.

The changes coincided with the announcement in Libya of a joint investigation by the LIA and the US Securities and Exchange Commission into whether Goldman Sachs and other banks had violated US law in any dealings with the Qaddafi regime.

After Qaddafi's death in 2011, it was speculated that he may have died the world's richest man, with more than US$200 billion (Dh734.6bn) of assets squirrelled away around the world. It is highly unlikely, though, that such a vast sum could be attributed to Qaddafi himself.

Much of that total may have related to the $170bn worth of Libyan funds that were invested overseas during Qaddafi's reign. Some $64.9bn was invested in the LIA, which was frozen by UN Security Council sanctions until February last year. About another $100bn was said in 2011 to be held in foreign reserves by the nation's central bank.

It has been suggested that Qaddafi tried to beat the UN sanctions by buying millions of dollars worth of properties in London, Dubai and other cities. He is also said to have held numerous Swiss bank accounts bursting with cash, had corporations on every continent and millions of dollars worth of gemstones given to him as payment-in-kind by African governments for security operations.

In truth, it will never be known how much of the country's enormous oil wealth he managed to launder or how much he squandered during his four decades in power.

"A lot of this wealth we will never get back. We will never know about it," Mr Asbali said. "You know there are bankers and accountants in the world who know where it is, but we will never find it all. It is impossible."

Mr Asbali said he was sure that there were individuals connected to the regime living in South Africa, Brazil and Dubai who were either already helping to track down some of Qaddafi's missing money or very soon would be.

"We have people helping us. We have some companies who have agreed to help Libya find this money," he said.

And it was also understood that several international law firms and many more investigators were assisting.

The new government is in such disarray, though, that none of the firms has been officially engaged, and all work done in the past two years has been largely uncoordinated.

Richard Blaksley, the chief executive of GPW, an international investigations firm, who has successfully tracked down assets belonging to Saddam Husseinand Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, said that finding assets belonging to former heads of state was never straightforward.

"From the client's end the instruction is always overlaid with political complexity," Mr Blaksley said. "On the one hand you have the treasury that is motivated by financial results. It wants the money back. Then you have other forces who are politically motivated. They want to show that they have returned to the people what is theirs. They also want to be seen to be holding the former regime to account."

In the case of Libya, it is often suggested that many forces associated with the former regime are still at large, making the political element of the search even more difficult.

Once instruction is received by any investigations firm, actually determining if any assets have been acquired inappropriately with state funds adds more complexity.

"We would tend to look for a mismatch between the way in which someone lives their life and the way in which their position should afford them to live it," Mr Blaksley said. "With Qaddafi this is quite difficult. He lived in a tent for the most part in a seemingly frugal way. His sons, on the other hand, lived like high-flying hedge fund managers. So we would look for assets they acquired, jets, yachts, properties and the like."

But even then, a return of funds to the state is not guaranteed. "The seizure process is highly complex and legally very lengthy," Mr Blaksley said.

In the Bhutto case, Mr Blaksley said, it took about two years from engagement to returning any money to the Pakistani government. "My colleagues' work on Saddam Hussein took about 18 months to two years," he added.