Libya’s former prime minister and oil minister Shokri Ghanem, a prominent defector from Muammar Qaddafi’s government, drowned in the River Danube, Vienna police said on Monday and a Libyan security source suggested he could have been murdered.
Ghanem’s fully-clothed body was found in the Danube in Vienna on Sunday, a few hundred meters from his home. According to a preliminary autopsy there were no indications of foul play or suicide, spokesman Roman Hahslinger told reporters.
A Libyan security source said they were investigating the death and believed he could have been pushed into the Danube by former Gaddafi agents.
His body was found at 8:40 a.m. (0640 GMT) on Sunday by a passerby near the entertainment area known as Copa Cagrana, where a footpath winds along the riverbank. He had spent Saturday evening watching television with his daughter.
The daughter noticed at around 10 a.m. that her father was no longer at home, police said.
The former Qaddafi confidant, who was also close to Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, was privy to potentially damaging information including on oil deals with Western governments.
Ghanem, 69, had been chairman of Libya’s state-owned National Oil Corporation (NOC) before defecting last year several months after opponents of Gaddafi had risen up against the Libyan leader and begun a rebellion.
Saad Djebbar, a UK-based Algerian lawyer who knew Ghanem and advised the Libyan government during the Lockerbie affair, told Reuters Ghanem was not the sort of man to kill himself. “It’s a very mysterious death,” he said.
“He was worried about the future course of politics in Libya but he would not be the kind of man for suicide. He was very well introduced internationally and had lots of connections.”.
“Shokri Ghanem definitely is one of the guys who knew a lot and was one of the most powerful guys in the old regime,” said David Bachmann, an Austrian Chamber of Commerce official based in Tripoli who knew Ghanem well.
As NOC chairman since 2006, Ghanem helped steer Libya’s oil policy and held the high-profile job of representing Libya at OPEC meetings, often visiting Vienna for meetings in that role.
After making a final break with the Qaddafi administration last year, Ghanem first appeared in Rome, saying he had defected because of the “unbearable violence” being used by government forces to try to put down the rebellion.
He had been working of late as an energy consultant in Vienna, where two daughters and their families also live.
Hahsinger said police had been unaware of any “concrete” threats against Ghanem.
Ghanem was still closely associated with Qaddafi’s rule by Libya’s new leaders and had ruled out returning home.
“Definitely there were people there who did not like him or who thought that he had stolen billions and now he is in safety in Vienna, having a nice life,” Bachmann said, adding it was common knowledge that Ghanem was often in Vienna.
Bachmann said he would not have been surprised to read that former Libyan rebels had taken revenge on Ghanem, but said Qaddafi allies could also have held a grudge.
“The problem was he was sitting between the chairs. For the old guys (in the Gaddafi regime) he was a defector, a kind of a rat. For the rebels he was also a rat because he did not defect early enough,” Bachmann said.
A woman who answered the phone at his home in a high-rise apartment block and identified herself as his daughter said: “Today we are still in a state of shock...right now I’m sorry I can’t talk more.”
Bachmann said Ghanem had many friends in Austria and Italy and spent time shuttling between Vienna and Rome while trying to lead a quiet life.
“He was 69 and was not a stupid guy. You figure out you have no political future and at a certain moment you say ‘OK, let’s finish this Libya story and try to enjoy my family and my grandkids and that’s it’.”
Ghanem, who studied at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston in the early 1970s, stood out among his fellow graduate students for his sharp intellect and infectious humor.
While American students there worried about soaring petrol prices during the OPEC oil embargo of 1973, he eagerly explained and defended the Arab view of the emerging new world energy order.
At an alumni reunion in 2004, he impressed his former classmates with his insider’s account of the economic reforms he planned to introduce with the help of Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, whom he had mentored at OPEC headquarters at a time when the now-captured son wanted to make a name for himself outside of Libya.
Ghanem said Saif al-Islam had persuaded his father to reform but he wasn’t sure how far reforms could go. He said he only wanted to stay in office as long as he could modernize the economy. If Qaddafi didn’t keep him, Ghanem said, he would happily retire to write one or two books on economics he had in mind.