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Top Khadafy aide helped craft deal with local firm

Company aimed to help Libya image

By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / March 30, 2011

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WASHINGTON — He is Moammar Khadafy’s brother-in-law and his most trusted aide, convicted in absentia for the 1989 bombing of a French airliner and implicated in the 1996 massacre of 1,200 Libyan political prisoners.

But in 2006, Abdullah Al Sanusi was also the man who arranged the services of a noted Cambridge consulting firm in a very different project: revamping Libya’s reputation on the world stage.

Sanusi, a longtime head of Libya’s intelligence services, oversaw initial negotiations with the Monitor Group, which was vying for a contract with Libya to bring prominent Americans to speak to Khadafy as part of an effort to improve ties and nudge the pariah country toward reforms.

“We believe that your commitment to creating a program of mutual education and relationship building with the Unit ed States remains of critical importance at this turning point in Libyan history. We remain privileged to be trusted with this work,’’ Monitor’s chief executive, Mark Fuller, and project director, Rajeev Singh-Molares, wrote to Sanusi in 2006. Their 13-page proposal outlined a plan to bring people, including Harvard-affiliated professors, to Tripoli.

The letter also requested immediate payment of $750,000 in fees and $600,000 in expenses.

The document — later posted on the website of an opposition group — ties the activities of Monitor Group to one of the most notorious members of Khadafy’s inner circle and a man who has been recently accused of orchestrating atrocities against antigovernment protesters. The general relationship of Monitor and Khadafy had been detailed in a Globe report earlier this month.

A spokesman for Monitor declined to comment on the firm’s relationship with Sanusi or the ethics of doing business with known human-rights violators. The company has not disputed the content of the posted document outlining the deal.

After coming under fire for its work polishing Khadafy’s image, including its pitch to write a positive book about his ideas and its decision not to register as a lobbyist of a foreign government, Monitor said in a statement that it has launched an internal investigation of its activities in Libya.

But the company maintains that the bulk of its work focused on supporting economic and political reforms, part of a short-lived warming of US-Libya relations promoted by the Bush administration and executed through Khadafy’s son, Saif.

Some academics who had hoped to improve US relations with Khadafy say that dealing with Sanusi, whose alleged human rights violations were well known, was a necessary evil.

Benjamin Barber, a political theorist who worked as a consultant for Monitor in Libya, said Sanusi had been involved in the Monitor contract early on. Barber said Sanusi took the initiative to get to know American visitors, including himself, because he admired Americans and felt that there was a natural alliance between the United States and Libya against Al Qaeda, a mortal enemy of both countries.

“I’m not saying that he is a good guy, but he was very pro-American,’’ said Barber, a professor emeritus at Rutgers University. “He admired and liked Bill Clinton, from a distance. He was attracted to the idea of meeting the Clintons.’’

Barber said he urged Sanusi to pay remaining compensation to the victims of Libyan bombings and to free Bulgarian nurses who had been imprisoned in Libya, actions that Libyan officials ultimately took.

Human rights advocates say Sanusi has resumed his brutal attacks on foes of Khadafy. He is a perfect example, those advocates say, of why no one should do business with human rights violators.

“Instead of being punished, he is now responsible for ongoing violence against protesters in Libya,’’ said Fred Abrahams, a special adviser at Human Rights Watch who wrote a report detailing the Libyan prison massacre. “That’s what happens when criminals don’t get punished. They continue to commit crimes.’’

Those who know Sanusi describe him as a lively, assertive man. He is married to Khadafy’s wife’s sister and mentored Khadafy’s sons, often intervening to bail them out when they got into legal trouble with girlfriends and parties in Europe, Barber said.

As the head of Libya’s intelligence service, Sanusi trained almost everyone in the Libyan intelligence apparatus for more than two decades.

He is named in a host of US civil lawsuits filed in relation to terror attacks pinned on Libyan officials. After a 1989 French airliner exploded over the desert in Niger, killing 170 people onboard, French investigators spent years tracking down the origin of a piece of circuit board in the bomb’s timer. They proved that Libyan intelligence officials purchased the equipment months earlier, according to Stuart H. Newberger, a Washington lawyer for the American families of victims of the attack.

“He was the ringleader,’’ said Newberger. “The evidence was very, very clear.’’

Based on that evidence, Sanusi and five other Libyan agents were convicted in absentia in a French court for murder, and they also lost a civil suit filed in a US court on behalf of the victim’s families. The award — $500 million in compensation and $1 billion in interest — forced Khadafy to make a deal with the Bush administration to settle all outstanding claims by victims for a much smaller amount, Newberger said.

In 1996, when political prisoners in Benghazi rioted against the conditions in the prison, Sanusi arrived at the site “in a dark green Audi with a contingent of security personnel,’’ according to the Human Rights Watch report.

At first, Sanusi tried to negotiate an end to the prison uprising, the report said, but then an estimated 1,200 prisoners were killed with grenades and heavy weaponry, and wounded prisoners were shot in the head.

“It’s highly unlikely that the shooting would have happened without his knowledge or direct order,’’ said Abrahams. “At first, they denied that anything had happened.’’

The legacy of the prison killing impacts Libya to this day, he said. The current uprising began in Benghazi in February after the regime arrested an activist working on behalf of the family members of the victims of that massacre.

Even in recent years, while Sanusi was working with the Monitor Group and trying to build relations with US officials, he was implicated in human rights violations, activists say.

Fathi Eljahmi, one of Libya’s most prominent political prisoners, was jailed in 2002 for speaking out against the regime and died in 2008 after becoming ill and receiving little medical care in prison, according to the Cambridge-based advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights.

Fathi’s brother, Mohamed Eljahmi of Chelmsford, holds Sanusi responsible for his brother’s imprisonment and death.

“Khadafy is the one behind all, but Abdullah Sansui’s role is always to enforce his wishes,’’ Mohamed Eljahmi said. “He is willing to die and also commit great atrocities to help Khadafy.’’

Despite Sanusi’s history, the Monitor Group insists the bulk of its work focused on supporting reforms.

“Given the terrible spectacle of Col. Khadafy using force on his own people, it may be difficult to imagine that just a few years ago many saw a period of promise in Libya,’’ Monitor said in a statement. “We regret that this period of promise was so short-lived.’’