Gaddafi and me: professor explains why LSE took cash from Libyan tyrant’s son

The man who helped to elicit a £1.5m donation from Saif al-Islam’s foundation tells his side of the story

A description of how Saif Gaddafi changed into a "frightened" man as the Libyan revolution approached is given today by his informal academic adviser from the London School of Economics.

Professor David Held, professor of political science at the LSE, is expected to face criticism – along with the university hierarchy – when the long-awaited inquiry into its links with the Libyan regime is published today.

In the first interview he has given about the saga – he spoke to reporters from the LSE's student newspaper, The Beaver – Professor Held acknowledges that he knew at the time that a £1.5m donation to the university from the Gaddafi charity would be "controversial". He says that, with hindsight, his behaviour could "give rise to a perception it was mistaken".

The professor also speaks of student Saif Gaddafi as a "young man who was struggling to make sense of the world, struggling to think about issues which obviously were not easy for him to think about".

He adds: "After four years or so, I found him to be much like an American liberal. He used to say there is nothing wrong with American democracy promotion in the Middle East – I'd be horrified by that statement – because Arabs should promote democracy themselves."

Professor Held also reveals in the interview the regime's desire for much stronger links – he was personally invited to Libya "three or four times" following Saif Gaddafi's graduation, and also declined opportunities to meet the student's father, Colonel Gaddafi.

The last meeting between Saif and Held was in December 2010 when he noticed a distinct shift of character in Colonel Gaddafi's son.

"He was really frightened," he said. "I said 'You look terrible', and he explained that some of his friends had been arrested in Libya, that his media enterprises had been closed down and that he was under pressure to remove the human rights dimension of his foundation."

That charity, the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, was set up in 1988. "Whatever sort of reform battle he was waging with the regime, it seemed to me at the moment that he had lost.

"I said 'What are you going to do?' He clearly didn't know. I said, 'Don't go back'. But he obviously made a different decision." Asked why Saif had changed so radically from moderniser to defender of his father's regime, the professor said: "I don't think that he thought that there would come a moment when he'd have to choose between his father, mother, siblings, family, tribe and his project of modernising Libya.

"I think he thought he had 10 to 15 years to do this. He believed his father would get old, he [Saif] would slowly take over and he would transform Libya. But he didn't have that time. "

Professor Held revealed it would have been possible to have had a meeting with Saif's father three or four times.

"I refused... It was one thing to deal with his son, another to deal with the old guard of the regime itself."

Professor Held is expected to face criticism in today's report, and was also questioned about Saif's PhD thesis amid accusations of plagiarism against the Libyan dictator's son.

Tony Blair helped Saif Gaddafi with his PhD thesis, sending the dictator's son a personally signed letter on Downing Street headed paper which thanked Saif for showing him "your interesting PhD thesis" – in May 2007. The letter offered guidance on a number of points, including examples of co-operation between governments, people and business "that might help with your studies". The Foreign Office has also confirmed that Britain's ambassador to the US, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, met Saif during his time at the LSE.

"The evidence for plagiarism is not as great as people think," Professor Held claimed, "and the issue will be: to what extent did he have help from an outsider? I don't know what the evidence is at this stage."

During the interview, Professor Held, who is leaving the LSE to take up a post at Durham University in January, gives an account of how he acted as the lynchpin for the £1.5m donation from the Gaddafi charity to the university.

"As soon as it became a possibility, I picked up the phone and called Howard Davies [the director of LSE who resigned over the affair] to ask him what he thought. I knew, of course, that this would be controversial.

"Had Howard said at that moment, 'Drop it – it's not a good idea', I would have, of course, dropped it. But he said: 'Let's put it through the committees'."

Saif's fate has turned, Professor Held said, on his speech on 20 February this year when he blamed oil companies, and "imperialists" for the protests and warned that "rivers of blood" would flow across Libya if they did not stop.

"I know that he had almost two speeches prepared on that fateful night of the 20 February," said Professor Held. "One by his closest adviser, which started with a conciliatory message to the people of Benghazi, apologies and deep concern about what had happened. It moved in an entirely different direction to the one that he gave. The speech he delivered instead was appalling, threatening and, as time went by, he became a spokesperson for this brutal regime."

Professor Held said of criticism of the LSE for accepting the donation: "People easily forget that the middle of 2009 is very different to now. No one anticipated the Arab spring. No one could anticipate that a student I knew would suddenly, at a moment of pressure, make a catastrophic set of choices."

He revealed the decision to accept the donation went through two meetings of the LSE's council – with a thorough discussion the second time. According to Professor Held, Mr Davies was "on balance" in favour of acceptance.

On deciding to take a position with Saif Gaddafi's foundation (he resigned soon after following an LSE council meeting), Professor Held said: "I thought it would be interesting. I thought I would learn a lot."