French ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy was taken into police custody Tuesday and questioned over allegations that late Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi financed his 2007 election campaign via suitcases stuffed with cash, a source close to the inquiry told AFP.
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.
The 63-year-old had until now refused to respond to a summons for questioning in the case, one of several legal probes that have dogged the right-winger since he left office after one term in 2012.
Sarkozy's detention was first reported by the Mediapart investigative news site and French daily Le Monde.
AFP's source said that Brice Hortefeux, a top government minister during Sarkozy's presidency, was also questioned Tuesday as part of the inquiry.
Sarkozy has been a focus of the inquiry opened in 2013 by magistrates investigating earlier claims by late Libyan ruler Moamer Kadhafi and his son Seif al-Islam that they provided funds for Sarkozy's election effort.
Sarkozy has dismissed the allegations as the claims of vindictive Libyan regime members furious over his participation in the US-led military intervention that ended Kadhafi's 41-year rule and led to his death.
But the case drew heightened scrutiny in November 2016 when a Franco-Lebanese businessman admitted delivering three cash-stuffed suitcases from the Libyan leader as contributions towards Sarkozy's first presidential run.
In an interview with the investigative website Mediapart, Ziad Takieddine said he had made three trips from Tripoli to Paris in late 2006 and early 2007 with cash for Sarkozy's campaign.
Each time he carried a suitcase containing 1.5-2 million euros (1.8-2.5 million dollars) in 200-euro and 500-euro notes, Takieddine claimed, saying he was given the money by Kadhafi's military intelligence chief Abdallah Senussi.
Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant father who takes a hard line on Islam and French identity, was nicknamed the “bling-bling” president during his time in office for his flashy displays of wealth.
He was taken into custody after a former associate, Alexandre Djouhri, was arrested in London in January.
Djouhri was released temporarily on bail but returned to pre-trial detention in February after France issued a second warrant for his arrest, ahead of a hearing scheduled for March 28.
Djouhri, a 59-year-old Swiss businessman, was well known among France's rightwing political establishment, and had also refused to respond to a summons for questioning in Paris.
Sarkozy failed with a bid to run again for president in November 2016 and has stepped back from frontline politics, although he remains a powerful figure behind the scenes at the right-wing Republicans party.
His failed attempt to clinch the presidential nomination for the Republicans in 2016 was partly down to the several legal cases against him.
When asked about the allegations by Takieddine during a televised debate, Sarkozy called the question “disgraceful” and said the businessman was a “liar” who had been convicted “countless times for defamation”.
Investigating magistrates have recommended Sarkozy 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.
Only one other French president — Jacques Chirac — has been tried in France's Fifth Republic, which was founded in 1958. He was give a two-year suspended jail term in 2011 over a fake jobs scandal