x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Squatters seize Saif Qaddafi's Dh66m luxury London home

No sign of Qaddafi's son, who owns the house with suede walls in the cinema room, but someone did arrive and offer the occupiers £40,000 to leave.

Members of a group calling themselves
Members of a group calling themselves "Topple The Tyrants" outside a house belonging to Saif Qaddafi, the son of the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi in Hampstead Garden Suburb, north London.

LONDON // Until a few weeks ago, the eight-bedroom mansion in one of London's most exclusive districts stood as an anonymous monument to the far-reaching family wealth of the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

Today, with its neo-Georgian roof draped in a banner demanding freedom for Libya, it serves as a reminder of that country's division and chaos.

Earlier this month, after media reports that the house belonged to Saif Qaddafi, the dictator's second son, squatters moved in.

They were still there yesterday in Hampstead Garden Suburb, an affluent district in north London, enjoying the extensive facilities of the £11 million (DH66m) house, including the Jacuzzi, swimming pool and home cinema with suede walls.

Saif bought the house two years ago, via an offshore company in the British Virgin Islands. The purchase came after the completion of his doctoral thesis, currently under investigation for plagiarism, at the London School of Economics.

There is little evidence that he has used the house much since and, certainly, it had been unoccupied for some time and available for rent, at a jaw-dropping £10,000 a week, until the British government froze all Qaddafi assets after the start of the Libyan rebellion.

Today, the dozen or so squatters like to portray their occupation as an act of solidarity with their brothers and sisters battling for freedom in Libya.

"We are here to protest, we are not here to have a party," said Belkazem Alghiryani, 34, an exile from Benghazi, speaking for the squatters. "There are six million people in Libya and this is their house. We will not leave until we give this house back to the Libyan people."

The original squatters, however, were not Libyans determined to take action against the Qaddafi regime but a hippy-esque group of English, French and Australian nationals calling themselves Topple the Tyrants.

Montgomery Jones, a spokesman for the organisation, said: "We didn't trust the British government to properly seize the Qaddafi regime's corrupt assets, so we took matters into our own hands.

"Our aim is to make sure that the assets stolen by Qaddafi are returned to the Libyan people and don't disappear into the pockets of governments or corporations. We stand in solidarity with the Libyan people."

The group subsequently invited Libyan exiles and "those fleeing tyranny and oppression across the world" to join them in Saif's house.

Since the occupation on March 8, several Libyans have done so, along with Iraqis and people of other nationalities.

The occupiers say they are taking care of the luxurious fittings in the house, which is devoid of personal possessions barring a collection of photographs found in one room.

Under English law police could not evict the squatters even if they wanted to. The matter is a civil one and, to get the occupiers ejected, the owners or their agents would have to go to a county court to get an eviction order.

Trevor Abrahmsohn, the head of Glentree Estates, which was handling attempts to rent out the house, said the company has not heard from the principals.

According to the squatters, the only effort to get them out came from an unknown man who showed up unannounced at 4am, more than a week ago, and offered them £40,000 to leave. They rejected the offer outright.

All of which leaves the squatters free to enjoy a small slice of Libya in one of London's most opulent areas. The electricity is still on in the house, though the occupiers use it sparingly, mainly to watch Al Jazeera reports on the Libyan situation on the large, flat-screen TVs that adorn the walls of most rooms, and they say the interior is being kept in good order.

Most neighbours, in an area ranked among the 10 most expensive in Britain, do not seem to mind the new arrivals.

"I approve of it," said Dr Saul Zadka. "I think they are good people, not just homeless people looking for somewhere free to live."

Another neighbour, Geoffrey Bernstein, added: "I don't support breaking into people's houses, but in this case I'm prepared to make an exception."

However, Brian Coleman, a member of the local council, has called on the foreign secretary, William Hague, to "take action immediately to seize Qaddafi's son's house".

"The squatters, who are a blight to the area, should be evicted and moved on to protect the nearby residents," he insisted.

dsapsted@thenational.ae