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France's Sarkozy in custody over allegations of campaign financing by Libya's Gaddafi

Patrick Kovarik, AFP | Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy shakes hands with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi upon his arrival for an official visit to Libya on July 25, 2007.

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been called in for questioning by investigators looking into suspected Libyan financing of his 2007 election campaign, officials in the French judiciary have said.

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Sarkozy was detained early on Tuesday morning and was being questioned by prosecutors specialising in corruption, money laundering and tax evasion at their office in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre.

Libyan officials from the Gaddafi era have claimed they helped finance Sarkozy’s successful presidential run in 2007. An investigation into the case has been underway since 2013.

It is the first time Sarkozy has been questioned in the inquiry. The hearing comes several weeks after a former associate, Alexandre Djouhri, was arrested in London as part of the investigation and later released on bail.

"Judges have been looking into allegations since 2013" - FRANCE 24 reporter Catherine Norris-Trent

Investigators are examining claims that Gaddafi's regime secretly gave Sarkozy 50 million euros overall for the 2007 campaign. Such a sum would be more than double the legal campaign funding limit at the time of 21 million euros.

The case drew heightened scrutiny in November 2016 when a Franco-Lebanese businessman said he delivered three suitcases stuffed with Libyan cash to Sarkozy's former chief of staff and campaign director, Claude Guéant, between 2006 and 2007.

In an interview with the investigative website Mediapart, Ziad Takieddine said he had made three trips from Tripoli to Paris. Each time he carried a suitcase containing 1.5-2 million euros in 200-euro and 500-euro notes, Takieddine claimed, saying he was given the money by Gaddafi's military intelligence chief Abdallah Senussi.

Sarkozy, who was president from 2007 to 2012, has always denied the allegations. He has described Takieddine as a "liar" who was convicted "countless times for defamation".

'Of all Sarkozy's investigations, this could be the most damaging'

The former French president had a complex relationship with Gaddafi. Soon after his election to the presidency, Sarkozy invited the Libyan leader to Paris for a state visit and welcomed him with high honours. But Sarkozy then put France in the forefront of NATO-led airstrikes against Gaddafi's troops that helped rebel fighters topple his regime in 2011.

The Libyan investigation is just one of several legal probes that have dogged the right-winger since his one-term presidency. Investigating magistrates have recommended he face trial on separate charges of illegal campaign financing over his failed 2012 re-election bid.

The prosecution claims Sarkozy spent nearly double the legal limit of 22.5 million euros ($24 million) on his lavish campaign, using false billing from a public relations firm called Bygmalion. He faces up to a year in prison and a fine of 3,750 euros if convicted, but he is appealing the decision to send him to trial, claiming he knew nothing about the fraudulent practices that Bygmalion executives have admitted.

After a long investigation, Sarkozy was cleared in October 2013 of accepting campaign donations in 2007 from France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, when she was too frail to know what she was doing.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP, REUTERS)

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