VIENNA (Reuters) - Spat at in public by a fellow Libyan who called him a thief, watching his back on long walks through Vienna, eating poorly; Muammar Gaddafi’s fugitive oil supremo was a troubled man in the months before he was found drowned in the Danube two weeks ago.
Just whom, or what, Shokri Ghanem feared may hold a key to his mysterious sudden death, just as he was under mounting pressure to reveal what he knew of suspect deals with foreign oil buyers that made billionaires of the late dictator’s family.
Ghanem, a former prime minister who ran Libya’s oil industry until he fled during last year’s civil war, was in negotiations when he died with the victorious former rebels to give evidence, a source close to those discussions in Tripoli told Reuters.
But Ghanem himself told Reuters in December, two months after Gaddafi was killed and shortly after his son Saif al-Islam was arrested, that he feared returning to Tripoli: “One man they were interviewing, they threw him out of the window,” he said.
Sitting in a Vienna hotel lobby, one eye on the door, fidgeting with his mobile phones and showing little of the easy charm and wit that made him many friends, he added: “If you’re successful, there’s always someone who wants to try to get you.”
Libyan Prosecutor General Abdelaziz al-Hasadi told Reuters on May 2 that he had a warrant for Ghanem to be “brought in”. But the oilman was regarded as a witness not a suspect, at least for the time being, would not necessarily be imprisoned and, Hasadi said, the warrant did not have force internationally.
As the holder of a European passport, Ghanem need also have had little fear of a rapid extradition to a country lacking a stable legal system - among his grateful energy clients, Silvio Berlusconi’s government granted him Italian citizenship under a presidential decree published in December 2008.
The Libyan government, struggling still to impose order on a country where rival militias hold great sway, has said little of the case beyond expressing surprise and noting, however, that Austrian police had found no evidence yet of any crime.
Police, and Ghanem’s family, say the Vienna murder squad has found nothing to contradict their view that the 69-year-old was probably taken ill, perhaps by a heart attack, while walking along the river near his home after dawn on Sunday, April 29 - though tests for toxins may take weeks yet to complete.
Yet since Ghanem died, dozens of conversations with family friends, neighbors, former colleagues in Tripoli and officials who knew Ghanem through the three decades he was a senior figure at OPEC headquarters in Vienna, have built up a picture of man who was under mounting stress and concerned for his wellbeing.
One saw him recently flanked by bodyguards, though he gave up police protection soon after he fled Libya for a city where he felt at home and where he began a new business. Others spoke of his ostracism by a Libyan expatriate community that once held him in some esteem but now felt free to denounce him as a stooge of a corrupt regime; an incident at Vienna airport this year, when a Libyan spat on him, bruised his spirit, friends said.
“He seemed depressed of late,” said one man who worked with Ghanem in Libya and kept in touch. “He wasn’t eating properly.” Like most friends who spoke of him, he did not want to be named.
An oil industry colleague who had coffee with Ghanem last month also found him anxious - notably over the Libyan government’s summons for him to testify about dubious deals: “He was very sad about this,” he said. “He was under great stress.”
Did that lead to a seizure which caused him to fall into the river? Or become so intolerable that Ghanem, a non-swimmer, took his own life by jumping in? Or did the stress betray a fear that powerful interests might silence him forever with a deadly push?
Police found no suicide note and accidental drowning seems, to some, a freakish coincidence. So it may be no surprise that in a city steeped in international intrigue, from the cinematic Cold War underworld of “The Third Man” to Carlos the Jackal’s OPEC hostage taking of 1975, talk of murder dies hard:
“It was a professionally executed crime,” concluded Noman Benotman, a prominent Libyan analyst and long-time opponent of Gaddafi who conceded he lacked any hard evidence. “It is the global energy mafia. It’s to do with corruption, secret deals. People wanted to make sure he is not around anymore to talk.”
Ghanem, who took a doctorate at Boston and won international respect as OPEC’s head of research in the 1990s, befriended Saif al-Islam when the younger Gaddafi studied in Vienna. Friends say Ghanem worked on the son’s dissertation. He was then summoned to be Libyan economy minister in 2001 and was prime minister from 2003. At the time, Saif al-Islam was leading efforts to exploit new oil export markets opened by a lifting of Western sanctions.
That intimacy with the Gaddafis, who made Ghanem chairman of the National Oil Corporation (NOC) in 2006, gave him influence and possibly wealth - though there was little showy in the life he led in his last year, taking long walks, riding streetcars, meeting old friends for coffee and watching films and soccer on television with his youngest daughter Aya at the spacious, 20th floor apartment he owned near Vienna’s United Nations complex.
But life with the Gaddafis also brought troubles for a man widely seen abroad as a competent and honest technocrat; he resigned from the NOC in 2009, in protest, colleagues and diplomats say, at demands from the Gaddafi clan, for cash. Yet he swallowed his pride and quickly returned to work, quitting again only last May as rebel forces drove across the desert.
What Ghanem knew about the Gaddafis’ alleged use of the NOC as a private bank and of the whereabouts of billions in untraced money would be valuable to prosecutors trying Saif al-Islam and others, and might have brought cash back to state coffers.
For those who suspect shadowy figures, from fugitive Gaddafi clansmen to Italian mafiosi, of seeking to silence Ghanem, his apparent willingness to talk may have influenced his demeanor.
Amer Albayati, an Iraqi writer and neighbor who would take walks with Ghanem, said he was wary: “Whenever he saw Arab men he got very cautious.” Albayati mimed for Reuters how Ghanem would at times stop and slouch against a tree - letting him see who was around, without overtly looking back over his shoulder.
Others, however, offer less melodramatic insights; Nihal Goonewardene, a Washington-based friend since graduate school days at Tufts University, said that some days before Ghanem died he had told a mutual friend that he had undergone medical tests and was concerned about getting bad results.
Daughter Aya, who is in her 20s, told police her father felt unwell as they watched television on the night before he died.
Others cite inner mental anguish that might have turned suicidal, highlighting the incident when a fellow expatriate accused Ghanem of robbing their country: “He had a run-in with someone at the airport two months ago, who called him a thief,” one family friend said. Another called it a turning point for Ghanem: “Earlier it was all red carpets, highlights and glamour. It was a U-turn after he got spat on. He withdrew into himself.”
Others found that hard to believe. He remained a regular at the Intercontinental Hotel, the hub for OPEC movers and shakers, holding meetings and registering a company, Petrofin GmbH, on March 7 that was to host a consultancy run by Ghanem and three former OPEC oil ministers, from Nigeria, Iraq and Algeria.
The 1982 murder dressed as suicide of Vatican businessman Roberto Calvi, “God’s banker”, found hanged from a Thames bridge after falling foul of the mafia, has helped sustain skepticism among those wary of ruling out foul play in Ghanem’s death.
“All of us, we keep taking for hours about this. Everybody has his theory,” said one friend who said he first thought of a heart attack but now was not so sure Ghanem had not been killed.
“Nothing has convinced me yet,” he said. “It is a mystery.”
Additional reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Ali Shuaib in Tripoli and William Maclean in London; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Alix Freedman