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Libya begins battle to seize $20 billion in Gadhafi assets - starting with London mansion

Alastair Jamieson, msnbc.com

This $16 million house in the Hampstead area of London was bought by Moammar Gadhafi's playboy son Saadi about six months before the Arab Spring uprisings began.

 

LONDON -- With nine bedrooms, a stylish indoor pool and a suede-walled private movie theater, it was a standout luxury home -- even in a London neighborhood already full of celebrities and super-rich foreign oligarchs.

But after being wrecked by squatters, 7 Winnington Close is now at the center an international court battle over the multi-billion dollar assets of dead Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

The $16 million property, in north London’s wealthy Hampstead area, was bought by the despot's playboy son Saadi about six months before the Arab Spring uprisings began.


Now that the Gadhafi regime has been swept away, Libya's new government wants ownership of the home, alleging it was purchased with cash plundered illegally from the state and its citizens.

The country's new rulers will ask Britain's High Court on Friday for the repatriation of the property as the proceeds of corruption.

Lawyer Mohamed Shaban will argue that Saadi, a former professional soccer player who is now living under house arrest in Niger, could not possibly have afforded the mansion on his wages as a commander in the Libyan army and therefore must have purchased it with state funds.

Glentree Estates

This file photo provided by a real estate agent shows a bedroom in the London home belonging to Saadi Gadhafi.

Fast cars
It is significant development – the first international move to recover parts of the vast Gadhafi family portfolio of property, hedge funds, fast cars and private jets.

"If we are successful, we will then start to build a case for the other assets," Giuma Bukleb, media attaché to the Libyan Embassy in London, told msnbc.com.

The court case will also signal the end of a year-long occupation of the house by squatters.

A group calling itself "Topple The Tyrants" took over the house during the uprising, demanding that it be returned to its "rightful owners," the Libyan people.

The squatters unfurled a banner on the roof that read, "Out of Libya, Out of London" and "Solidarity," and posted a notice on the door declaring the building occupied – a move that under British law prevents owners from using force to access to their own property without the backing of court bailiffs.

One Libyan law student who took part in the occupation told the London Evening Standard the mansion had been "pretty much destroyed" inside, adding: "There's no furniture, just mattresses. The swimming pool is smashed and the heating doesn't work."

Alastair Jamieson, msnbc.com

A notice posted at the door of Saadi Gadhafi's house in Hampstead, London.

When msnbc.com visited the house this week there was no answer at the door. A black leather couch had been pushed up against the side entrance to prevent access.

'Peace and quiet'
The occupation has bemused neighbors, whose quiet cul-de-sac is now regularly besieged by reporters and Libyan political activists.

"It was noisy at the start but we haven’t heard anything for a while," said one neighbor, who declined to be named. "I hope the court action is successful so that Libyans get their property and we get our peace and quiet."

Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images, file

Saadi Gadhafi is a former professional soccer player. He is under house arrest in Niger.

Robert Palmer, a campaigner for anti-corruption group Global Witness, said Friday's court case would be "hugely significant."

"This is the first action to recover the British assets of an Arab Spring dictator," he said. "A lot of people will be watching to see what happens."

$20 billion in assets?
Bukleb said much of the Gadhafi family's property is in London, where one of the dictator's sons, Seif, attended the London School of Economics.

Dealings with Gadhafi son embarrass London college

Libyan Embassy officials say a court victory will trigger a deeper investigation into the Gadhafi family's complex network of assets, which Britain's Treasury estimates could be worth almost $20 billion in total.

Alastair Jamieson

A discarded sofa blocks entry to Saadi Gadhafi's home in Hampstead, London.

Many are owned through offshore investment companies. The house at the center of Friday's case is registered to Capitana Seas Ltd., a company based in the British Virgin Islands. The embassy's lawyers were forced to seek the U.K. Treasury's intervention in order to establish a link to Saadi Gadhafi, who is thought to be one of the company's directors.

Embassy officials believe the family's U.K. property assets include the $200 million Portman House on Oxford Street and apartments worth a total of $25 million in South Kensington.

"The fact is, we simply do not know for certain exactly how much the Gadhafi family had in London," Bukleb said.

A year after revolt, Libya mired in factional fighting

The National Transitional Council (NTC) won United Nations approval to access $1.55 billion in Libyan currency held in the U.K. by printer De La Rue last year.

Patrick Kovarik / AFP - Getty Images

A look at the life and times of Libya's mercurial and flamboyant leader

Palmer believes Capitana Seas will not contest the court action because it is owed money by Saadi.

'Greedy hands'
Saadi's lawyer, Jerusalem-based Nick Kaufman, did not verify that claim, but told msnbc.com: "Even if Saadi was a director of the company, he was never lawfully served with any legal documentation relating to this outrageously speculative claim."

He added: "The NTC, which has been criticized for a lack of transparency in its own financial dealings, is exploiting the fact that my client is currently subject to wholly unjustified international sanctions and an Interpol red notice for baseless criminal charges -- which it itself instigated.

"As a result my client cannot leave the humanitarian protection afforded him by Niger without fear of unlawful arrest. He can neither travel abroad nor can he get access to funds, at present, to instruct British lawyers to represent his interests in the face of this outrageously speculative claim based on surmise and not evidence."

He added that the court action is "a meritless publicity stunt designed to lay greedy hands on a property that was lawfully acquired."

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