TUNIS, Tunisia – A former Libyan prime minister claims Moammar Gadhafi's regime financed French President Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign, according to his lawyer. Sarkozy vehemently denies the allegations.
The accusations of a staggering €50 million in illegal financing come at a rough time for Sarkozy, who had an up-and-down relationship with the late Gadhafi's Libya and is trailing in polls ahead of a presidential election Sunday.
Sarkozy is suing a French website that says it has proof of a €50 million funding offer from Gadhafi's government — a figure that is more than double the overall financing limit for French presidential candidates.
Bechir Essid, a lawyer for former Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Al-Mahmoudi, told The Associated Press on Thursday that his client told him the funding operation "took place." He offered no proof to back up the claim.
Al-Mahmoudi is in a jail near Tunis awaiting possible extradition to Libya. He fled Libya after rebels overthrew Gadhafi, and was arrested in September in Tunisia.
The lawyer said his client fears being handed over to the new Libyan authorities. Some human rights groups have argued against his handover, saying his life could be threatened.
The first claims of illegal Libyan funding for Sarkozy's first presidential bid came from Gadhafi's son Seif al-Islam, days before NATO-led airstrikes began in March 2011 to push Gadhafi from power.
Last week, French news website Mediapart said it obtained a 2006 document signed by Libya's then-intelligence chief Moussa Koussa offering to spend €50 million for Sarkozy's 2007 campaign.
Ex-premier Al-Mahmoudi confirmed the existence of the document, according to his lawyer, and said the money was later handed over. The former Libyan premier gave no other details, the lawyer said.
The lawyer said he discussed the funding claims with his client during a visit to see him in jail a few months ago.
The lawyer recounted Mahmoudi's comments as follows: "Mr. Mahmoudi was pained and perplexed to see Mr. Sarkozy turn against the Libyan regime, and to be the instigator of the NATO offensive against his country, while, he said, 'we helped and contributed to his success.'"
Sarkozy sued Mediapart for alleged "forgery" and "publication of false news." Mediapart says it stands by its reporting and filed a countersuit accusing Sarkozy of slander.
Sarkozy reached out to Gadhafi's regime early in his presidency, saying he wanted to repair Libya's relations with the international community.
Then when Gadhafi's forces cracked down on the opposition amid the Arab Spring uprisings last year, Sarkozy became one of Gadhafi's strongest critics. Sarkozy led an international push for airstrikes to force Gadhafi from power. Gadhafi was later killed.
Sarkozy faced yet another embarrassment involving Libya this week: He acknowledged that Gadhafi's former chief of staff, Bashir Saleh, is living in France with the government's permission despite facing U.S. sanctions and being wanted by Interpol.
Mediapart suggested Sarkozy allowed Saleh refuge because of past favors. Sarkozy denied that, saying Saleh went to France after consultations with Libyan authorities because his family is in France.
Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.