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The $438 million bribe

January 30, 2009 19:01 IST

On July 24, 2007, the European Union, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his sometimes estranged wife, Cecilia Ciganer-Albeniz Sarkozy, playing prominent roles, secured the release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor wrongly incarcerated in Libya for over nine years.

The six medical workers were charged in February 1999 with deliberately infecting 438 children with HIV-tainted blood in a Benghazi hospital. Expert medical testimony and numerous diplomatic initiatives failed to secure their freedom, and they were eventually sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment. Suddenly released, the six medical workers flew to Sofia on a French presidential jet, where Bulgarian President Georgi Purvanov set them free.

On the surface, the deal appeared to be the perfect solution to a controversy that had become a major embarrassment for Libya, blocking wider commercial ties with Europe. Nobody admitted blame, nobody lost face and no blackmail was paid.

The fact that 438 Libyan families received $1 million each from undisclosed sources was purely coincidental. Because EU talks with Libya had begun in early 2006, the last-minute grandstanding of the Sarkozys bruised a few feelings. Otherwise, all seemed well.

Later, it became clear that the settlement, for the EU and especially for France, was as much about commercial interests as it was about humanitarian concerns. In a tawdry deal, the EU in effect bribed Libya, trading limited bilateral assistance and normalised diplomatic relations for enhanced EU access to Libyan markets. State-of-the-art weapons and nuclear technology were at the top of the Libyan shopping list.

The deal is a shocking reminder that corruption isn't solely a matter of small-time payoffs to petty officials. Nation-states and gigantic multinationals play the same game, just for much higher stakes.

EU member states immediately squared up for new contracts in Libya, and human rights did not weigh heavily in the balance. One day after his wife flew the six medical workers to Sofia, Sarkozy flew to Tripoli to sign several contracts with the Libyan leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi, including a military-industrial partnership and an accord on the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Just over a week later, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co, which is under French and German management, announced it was concluding a 296 million pound ($405 million) arms contract with Libya. The deal included the supply of Milan anti-tank missiles worth 168 million pounds and advanced communications equipment worth 128 million pounds. The anti-tank missiles are manufactured by EADS, the UK's BAE Systems and Italy's Finmeccanica.

The announcement came only two days after Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader's eldest son by his second wife, and his possible successor, told the Paris newspaper Le Monde that the six medical workers were innocent scapegoats. He added that their release included a promise to supply Libya with modern arms.

He also suggested a "link" had been established between their release and the eventual transfer to Libya of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, serving a life sentence in Scotland for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103.

Responding to the growing furor over the hostage release, Sarkozy continued to maintain there had been no quid pro quo to obtain the freedom of the medical workers. In turn, his critics repeated calls for transparency in government, demanding a parliamentary inquiry into the affair.

Known for tailoring public remarks to the audience at hand, Saif, on his return to Libya, issued a statement saying the arms deal was not a barter for release of the medical workers, with its timing a mere coincidence. In an interview published days later in Newsweek, he then characterised the negotiations as "blackmail" on the part of both the E.U. and Libya.

Referring to the talks as an immoral game, he added that the Europeans had set the rules of the game, and now they paid the price. Two days later, Saif admitted in an al-Jazeera interview that the six medical workers had been tortured with electricity.

In early October 2007, Sarkozy traveled to Sofia to receive Bulgaria's highest honor, the Stara Planina medal, for his role in the release of the six medical workers. Cecilia Sarkozy declined to attend the ceremony, and six days later, the couple announced they were divorcing.

In mid-December 2007, Libyan leader Qaddafi made an official visit to Paris, his first in 34 years. Deals concluded during the visit included the purchase of 21 Airbus planes, valued at 10 billion pounds; a nuclear cooperation agreement, including the supply of one or more nuclear reactors to Libya; and a memorandum of cooperation in which Libya promised to negotiate exclusively with France for all future military purchases.

In the course of the visit, Sarkozy defended his controversial guest, wrongfully suggesting that the Arab world did not consider Qaddafi a dictator. In turn, the Libyan leader insisted he was never involved in terrorist acts.

During his Paris stay, Qaddafi was his normal ebullient self, pitching a tent on the presidential grounds and moving about with an entourage of female bodyguards. However, it was Rama Yade, minister for human rights and the youngest member of Sarkozy's cabinet, who stole the show.

Electing to attend an event marking U.N. Human Rights Day instead of an official state dinner for Qaddafi, she earned a reprimand from the Élysée Palace after she publicly criticized her boss for allowing Qaddafi to treat France like a "doormat" to "wipe the blood of his crimes off his feet."

Ronald Bruce St John, Forbes