Saadi Gadhafi’s Toronto penthouse rightfully belongs to the state of Libya, but to avert corruption it should remain subject to an international asset freeze until the North African country has a democratically-elected government, says a former diplomat.
Fathi Baja, who served as Libya’s ambassador to Canada from 2013 to 2017, said the likelihood of economic crime is the reason he refused to hand over confidential documents about Mr. Gadhafi’s condo to Libyan embassy staff in Ottawa or government officials in his home country after he was fired from his post. Instead, he took the cache of paperwork to Libya for safekeeping because of the risk of sanctions evasion in both countries.
Not only did he fear that corrupt politicians in Libya would try to exploit the penthouse for personal gain, but Mr. Baja was also aware of attempts – including by Libyan-Canadians connected to Mr. Gadhafi – to purchase the luxury property despite an asset freeze imposed by the United Nations Security Council in 2011.
Mr. Baja’s comments – made in an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail – underscore how Canada’s reputation for weak enforcement of international sanctions emboldens bad actors operating at home and abroad.
“A lot of members [of Libya’s parliament], including their leaders, are – sorry for my language – but they are thieves,” Mr. Baja said in a telephone interview from Benghazi, Libya. “So, I was afraid to hand things like the apartment documentation to them.”
The Globe reported on Saturday that Mr. Gadhafi, the third-born son of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, is trying to orchestrate a sale of his downtown residential suite that he originally bought for $1.55-million in 2008.
Specifically, the younger Mr. Gadhafi drew up a power of attorney appointing Karim Al-Murabit, a businessman of Libyan origin with connections to Canada, as his representative on all matters relating to the luxury condo, including a possible sale, the story said, citing the document and two people familiar with the matter.
The man named in that legal document, who also spells his surname as Murabet, confirmed to The Globe on Sunday that Mr. Gadhafi, 50, asked for his help to explore a sale of his condo. But Mr. Murabet said that he was unaware until recently that the apartment remains subject to a UN freeze order.
Mr. Baja – who has no knowledge of Mr. Gadhafi’s power of attorney or Mr. Murabet – said he gathered up documents concerning the penthouse after he was fired by an official working for then Libyan leader Fayez al-Sarraj in 2017.
At the time, Mr. al-Sarraj’s government of national accord was in power in Tripoli, but the eastern and southern regions of Libya were being controlled by a rival faction.
Instead of relinquishing those records to either group, Mr. Baja says he wrote a letter to Libya’s foreign ministry and an unnamed judge to outline his concerns about safeguarding the property, urging them to alert the UN.
The government of Libya has long claimed that it is the rightful owner of Mr. Gadhafi’s penthouse. A notice dated Oct. 10, 2012, which is backed by an Ontario court order, is listed on the property’s parcel register. But the title was never transferred because of the UN asset freeze.
Mr. Baja said that he was unable to complete that process because he abruptly lost his job as ambassador.
“It is belonging to Libyan state,” Mr. Baja said of the penthouse. “After they have an election, they should give it to the elected government. Otherwise, the United Nations should hold it until Libyans have an election.”
Libya, which is currently ruled by a provisional government headed by Prime Minister Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah, has been engulfed in conflict since a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 that ended the 42-year rule of Colonel Gadhafi.
In 2014, Libya was split in two by warring groups in the east and the west. Although a ceasefire was reached in 2020, those political divisions persist and threaten to derail a plan to hold long-delayed elections this year.
It is against that backdrop that Mr. Baja is speaking out about the threat of sanctions evasion involving Mr. Gadhafi’s apartment.
Specifically, Mr. Baja said that he has received information about different attempts to purchase the penthouse over the years. (In all instances that he cited, Mr. Baja either couldn’t recall or declined to identify his informants.)
While he was ambassador, for instance, Mr. Baja says a real estate broker in Ottawa, who worked with the embassy, offered his services to sell the penthouse, stressing there were willing buyers. But Mr. Baja said he told the man that a sale would violate the UN freeze order.
Then in 2022, Mr. Baja says a political contact in Cairo informed him that a group of Libyan-Canadians, people affiliated with Mr. Gadhafi, sought out the help of the contact’s Egyptian political party to help to obtain the keys to the Toronto penthouse.
“But this [Egyptian] political party, in fact, refused to work with Saadi’s group,” Mr. Baja said.
Also last year, Mr. Baja said he received another tip that a former top aide of Col. Gadhafi, a Libyan-Canadian named Ali Ibrahim Dabaiba, also expressed interest in purchasing the younger Mr. Gadhafi’s Toronto apartment.
In March of 2015, Mr. Baja wrote to the Department of Foreign Affairs, since renamed Global Affairs Canada, requesting that officials block the renewal of Mr. Dabaiba’s Canadian passport, The Globe reported in 2018.
Mr. Dabaiba is the former head of the Organization for Development of Administrative Centres, Libya’s infrastructure contracting department. During Col. Gadhafi’s rule, Mr. Dabaiba did business with numerous companies, including Montreal-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., The Globe reported in that same 2018 story.
Mr. Dabaiba is also a relative of Mr. al-Dbeibah, Libya’s current Prime Minister. (There is no single way to translate an Arabic name into English, which is why spellings vary.)
The Globe tried to reach Mr. Dabaiba for comment about Mr. Fathi’s allegations by sending registered letters to four of his last-known addresses, two in Montreal and two in London, and via contact information for two of his adult children. But he has not responded.
Similarly, the Libyan embassy in Ottawa and the Libyan consulate in Istanbul did not provide responses to questions about Mr. Baja’s assertions or Mr. Gadhafi’s power of attorney.
Separately, Mr. Murabet said that Mr. Gadhafi has traveled to Cairo to visit his mother in recent years. But Mr. Murabet said he knew nothing of Mr. Dabaiba’s potential interest in Mr. Gadhafi’s apartment.
As for the keys to Mr. Gadhafi’s penthouse, Mr. Baja says he left those with the embassy’s Ottawa-based lawyer, Gar Knutson, before leaving Canada in 2017.
Back then, Mr. Knutson worked at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP. Now semi-retired, he no longer represents the Libyan embassy and doesn’t recall having the keys to the penthouse.
“Physical keys exist in the form of a fob,” Mr. Knutson said in a telephone interview. “The condo corp., they control the fobs.”
Mr. Knutson confirmed that he approached the condo corporation when he was the embassy’s lawyer and took Mr. Baja to visit the property for the first time when he was ambassador.
“It was very nice,” Mr. Knutson said. “I think there was cereal in the cupboards … It was like walking into a hotel room – a nice hotel room.”
Mr. Knutson, who was previously a cabinet minister in governments of Liberal prime ministers Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien, also said he worked with Global Affairs Canada to start the process of having the ownership transferred to the state of Libya.
“What’s happened since I left? I have no idea,” Mr. Knutson said.
Borden Ladner Gervais spokesperson Tamara Costa declined to comment on whether the law firm is still acting for the government of Libya.
As for Mr. Baja, he said that he has never had any direct conversations with Mr. Gadhafi about his Toronto penthouse, but he assumed responsibility for it while he was ambassador.
“I used to pay the electricity and the water there, even though nobody was living there. And also just to guard the place – I used to pay it monthly,” Mr. Baja said. “We have a monthly payment to the owner of the whole building.”
Mr. Baja said he visited the property on three occasions during his time as ambassador, adding that the glass building boasts views of the nearby Rogers Centre and Toronto’s island airport.
“The apartment is well-furnished,” said Mr. Baja. “Obviously, it’s a very, very, very, very beautiful place.”
In addition to Canada, Mr. Gadhafi also purchased properties in Britain, Mr. Baja said. The Libyan government reclaimed one of those properties, a London mansion estimated to be worth £10-million ($16.8-million), after a British court ruled in 2012 that Mr. Gadhafi had purchased it with stolen state funds.