Was a Libyan Oil Man's Death in Vienna Connected with Corruption Probes?

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Chris Helgren / Reuters

Shokri Ghanem, then Libya's National Oil Corporation chairman, listens to a reporter's question during an interview with Reuters at his office in Tripoli on March 2, 2011. The former oil-industry official was found floating dead in the Danube River in Austria on April 29, 2012, police said

The body found floating in the Danube in Vienna on Sunday, April 29, might have been from the opening scene of a spy thriller: the dead man turned out to have been a pivotal figure in an oil-rich dictatorship that collapsed seven months ago — a man with intimate knowledge about how millions of dollars from international oil companies might have ended up in the pockets of top officials, including millions allegedly siphoned from an ExxonMobil contract. Was the death of Shokri Ghanem a suicide, a murder or an accident? The fate of the Libyan 69-year-old former oil chief in Muammar Gaddafi's regime has touched off a frenzy of speculation.

Until he fled to Europe last May during NATO's bombing campaign to topple the regime, Ghanem had been a top aide to Gaddafi; he had served as his Prime Minister and Oil Minister and as head of Libya's critical National Oil Corp. (NOC), whose income keeps the country afloat. Austrian authorities said there were no discernible signs of violence on Ghanem's body but that they could not rule out foul play until an autopsy is performed. Police spokesman Roman Hahslinger told reporters on Sunday, "It is possible that he felt unwell and fell into the water." Perhaps. But many Libyans, oil-market analysts and journalists suspect that Ghanem's death was no accident.

As chairman of the NOC and a veteran insider of Gaddafi's 42-year regime, Ghanem knew more than most about the intricacies of each Libyan oil contract and the side deals that enabled them. Together with Gaddafi's now jailed son Saif al-Islam, Ghanem led the effort over the past six years to overhaul Libya's economy as Western sanctions against Gaddafi were phased out. Billions of dollars in investments then poured into Libya, as American and other foreign oil companies competed for the rights to drill some of the region's most promising fields. Ghanem's huge store of knowledge about the contracts signed during that period led some to speculate as to whether Ghanem might have been silenced for fear that his secrets could incriminate others. "It's not every day I report on a possible murder mystery, but today it's ... Ghanem," tweeted Bloomberg Television's Dubai correspondent Lara Setrakian, who has reported on Libya's oil industry for years.

Ghanem, a spry, kinetic figure with a Ph.D. from Tufts University in Boston, had been a favorite of foreign correspondents visiting Libya. He would welcome them into his office for convivial talks, flouting Gaddafi's media clampdown. When I first visited him in Tripoli in 2004, while he was Prime Minister, he cheerfully offered to unblock a visa for TIME photographer Lynsey Addario — and did so within two minutes by placing a call. On a subsequent visit in 2010, Ghanem, then chairman of the NOC, told me that efforts to ease Gaddafi's dictatorship faced stiff resistance from conservatives within the regime and that the reform efforts "will not be a walk in the park." That was an understatement: a bloody revolution exploded one year later.

But Ghanem was a creature of Gaddafi too. When the revolution began in February 2011, Ghanem kept his job, choosing not to follow his former close colleague Mahmoud Jibril in defecting to the rebel side. (Jibril later became Prime Minister of the rebel National Transitional Council.) After he fled last May, Ghanem told friends that his departure was prompted by horror at Gaddafi's slaughter of civilians. "He told me, 'I couldn't remain indifferent. So many had been killed, I had to stop,' " says Samuel Ciszuk, an oil consultant for KBC Energy Economics in London, who saw Ghanem in exile several times. By then, Ghanem was in a political wilderness: Gaddafi's regime was sinking fast, but the rebels shunned him for having stayed on board too long.

Ghanem fled to Vienna, where he had lived for years during his tenure as head of research for OPEC. He is believed to have had an Italian passport provided by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at a time when the state-run oil company ENI had inked huge gas and oil contracts with Libya. A 2009 diplomatic cable from the U.S. embassy in Libya cited the Canadian ambassador in Tripoli as claiming that Ghanem had accepted Italian citizenship, perhaps because "he is looking for a way out."

"He was mixed up with politics, which is inevitable if you have a high profile in oil," says Manouchehr Takin of the Center for Global Energy Studies in London, who knew Ghanem well. "He obviously wasn't a deft politician. He looked like an honest man."

Ghanem's honesty, however, was being tested in the months before his death, as Libya's post-Gaddafi authorities sought to discover all that he knew about oil deals. Oil analysts tell TIME that Ghanem was increasingly being quizzed, by journalists among others, about corruption in the oil industry. "He was always reticent to speak about the past," says Giulio Carini, a campaigner on Libya for Global Witness, an anticorruption organization in London, who says he had planned to meet Ghanem sometime in May. "But it is likely he had the wealth of knowledge and that he knew everything about the contracts," he adds. That has prompted some to speculate that his death may have been a suicide.

There was, it seems, much to hide. Two weeks ago Global Witness published a leaked Libyan internal audit from 2010 about Ghanem's NOC. The findings were damning. It suggested that the NOC may have systematically underpriced its oil and passed off some exports as being of higher grade than they really were. ExxonMobil, for example, complained that it had received lower-quality Libyan oil than the NOC had promised. "The loss to ExxonMobil was about $4 million," Carini says. In addition, Ghanem's NOC had offered deep discounts to the Norwegian oil company YARA and others, prompting questions over whether kickbacks had been involved — although those are not yet confirmed. "We do know that there was mismanagement of millions of dollars of oil revenues and that some of the deals were murky, based on documents we've retrieved," Carini says.

The contracts are now under intense scrutiny from Libya's new leaders, who have ordered a review of all deals signed under the old regime. Libya's deputy general prosecutor Abdelmajeed Saad told the Wall Street Journal in April that Ghanem is being investigated for "wasting public funds, making illegal gains and wasting and mismanaging of the national oil production, and signing some oil contracts that had some irregularities." Libyan officials have declined to say whether Ghanem was formally charged with any wrongdoing in Libya. The prosecutor also told the Journal that Interpol was preparing a red-notice arrest warrant for Ghanem. Interpol spokeswoman Rachael Billington told TIME on Monday, April 30, that the organization had not issued any public warrant, although she said it was possible that one had been quietly circulated among law-enforcement officials.