Florida Keys

Was this dive equipment sold to Libyan militants? The FBI is investigating

Peter Sotis, an expert in advanced rebreather diving who was with Canadian documentary maker Rob Stewart when he disappeared and died following an underwater film shoot off the Florida Keys in February, is embroiled in a lawsuit with his former business partner. In the dispute, he’s claimed to have knowingly sold a large order of sophisticated dive gear to Libyan militants.

The Department of Commerce’s Office of Export Enforcement and the FBI began investigating the deal last summer and the shipment was confiscated in Europe late in August 2016. Sotis denies he is a subject of the investigation.

In an interview this week, Sotis also denied ever suspecting the customers, who live in Virginia and Libya, were militants and he said he never shipped the items directly to the war-torn north African nation, but instead had the buyers pick up merchandise from his company’s Fort Lauderdale warehouse last August. What they did with it after that was out of his control, he said.

“He sure seemed like a good guy to us,” Sotis said of Osama Bensadik, the customer who bought the equipment and received training on the gear from Sotis. “The idea that these guys were terrorists is just ridiculous.”

“I never shipped anything to Libya, ever,” he added.

The price tag on the order was “in excess of $100,000,” Sotis said. It included three rebreathers, underwater breathing apparatuses popular with deep divers that, unlike conventional compressed air tanks, recirculate air and scrub the diver’s exhaled carbon dioxide. Also in the shipment were three underwater propulsion scooters, lights and “all kinds of stuff,” Sotis said.

Sotis said his company, Add Helium, which sells dive gear and trains divers on the equipment, regularly handles similar large orders.

“For us, this was no big deal,” he said. “We sell high-end rebreathers and provide high-end training. We’re not a dive shop, as you can see.”

But typically, clients do not pay all at once, as did Bensadik.

“Most people do it piecemeal. These guys were well funded and ready to buy everything under the sun,” Sotis said.

Sotis said Bensadik told him the gear was going to be used for shipwreck hunting in the Mediterranean Sea.

The transaction between Add Helium and Bensadik was made through a Patrick Springs, Virginia,. company called Ramas LLC. Ramas arranged for the gear to be picked up from Add Helium’s facility on Aug. 9 by a freight company and arranged for it to be sent to Libya, Sotis said.

Mohammad Zaghab, operations manager for Ramas, referred questions about the shipment to Brickell attorney Robert Becerra.

Becerra said the equipment was “from my understanding, for recreational diving.” He said the shipment is being held in a warehouse in Broward County while the federal government’s investigation continues.

“They’re investigating everybody within a blast radius of the transaction,” Becerra said.

Sotis said his dealings with Bensadik and Zaghab were legal, and stressed that what became of the equipment after it left his company’s possession was never up to him.

“If someone wants to pick something up from us and ship it overseas, it’s none of our business,” he said. “How do I stop a shipment from a company I didn’t hire?”

Who is Bensadik?

Bensadik could not be reached for comment. Emails sent to his private account with questions about the purpose of the equipment were not returned. An email to his American Red Cross account bounced back.

He is named as the Martinsville, Va., community volunteer leader on the nonprofit’s website. However, a representative with the chapter said he’s never heard of him. He is no longer listed in the chapter’s phone directory.

Becerra said he represents Zaghab and Ramas LLC only, not Bensadik.

Bensadik’s son, Muhannad Bensadik, was born in North Carolina but died at the age of 21 fighting to overthrow Col. Moammar Gahdafi’s government in 2011. He was shot to death by government forces in the town of Bishir, according to ABC News.

Before Muhannad died, his father joined him on the battlefield, serving in the resistance as an ambulance driver, according to press reports. According to the Daily Mail, Osama Bensadik was setting up a dollar store in Benghazi, Libya, with his son and a relative when the fighting broke out. Their stories were told in the 2014 documentary “We are the Giant,” about the 2010-11 Arab Spring.

Feds get involved

Sotis is being sued by Shawn Robotka, a Key Largo man who owns 20 percent of one of Sotis’ businesses called Kaizen International Solutions LLC, which is the parent company of Add Helium. Robotka wants a judge to liquidate Kaizen’s assets and grant an injunction preventing Sotis from continuing to operate the business, in large part because of the Libyan transaction, which he said he brought to the attention of federal law enforcement.

“I always thought it was odd Osama Bensadik wanted the military spec dive propulsion vehicles designed to carry hundreds of pounds of heavy equipment,” Robotka said in a detailed statement about the transaction he sent to this newspaper.

The suit was filed in Broward County Circuit Court in December. The latest filing in the case is from August when Robotka’s lawyers stated they have not been paid more than $30,000 in legal fees. Robotka said the issue has been settled. He said his attorneys left the firm that filed the lien in August and there was internal confusion over billing.

“This is common practice when a firm splits and you choose the attorney team that is leaving the initial firm,” Robotka said in an email. “This was from months ago and has been addressed.”

Sotis said Robotka is making more out of the Libyan transaction than it was as part of a “[BS] legal ploy” to “get out from underneath his investment” in Kaizen.

Sotis denies being under federal investigation, citing his frequent work-related travel outside of the United States.

“If I was under federal investigation, I would not be allowed to leave the country,” Sotis said. “They would have seized my passport. It’s standard procedure.”

The transaction was flagged, however by Office of Export Enforcement Special Agent Brent Wagner in last August 2016, days after the Libyans sent a freight company to pick it up from Add Helium on Aug. 9.

On Aug. 25, Wagner sent Emilie Voissem, Add Helium’s shipping manager, an email stating “the reported $100,000 funds for the recent transaction with Mohammad Zaghabwere based on an illegal transaction in violation of U.S. export laws and the Export Administration Regulation.”

Wagner issued a subpoena that day for all Add Helium records dealing with shipments to Libya “either directly or indirectly.”

“Of course, we complied,” Sotis said.

Robotka said he warned Sotis in July that their company could not make the deal with the Libyans because then-President Obama signed an executive order in April 2016 expanding a 2011 arms embargo against the country because of ongoing violence there. Robotka said the rebreathers and scooters would likely qualify as prohibited items under the embargo.

Sotis seems to have heeded Robotka’s advice in part, but was still intent on making the sale, according to a July 30 email he sent to his staff.

‘Another route’

“OK, if the president has banned all shipping to Libya, they are going to have to find another route or handle it from here. We do not need trouble from the government for making an illegal shipment,” Sotis wrote. “I think it’s time Osama and Mohammad manage this problem and let us know how they intend to receive their goods, as we can’t ship to Libya.”

The shipment was picked up by the freight company on Aug. 9. On Aug. 24, Wagner and FBI Special Agent Andrew Villanueva arrived at Add Helium explaining that the shipment was going to be seized. Robotka said he asked the agents how the process works. Wagner responded that agents would come to the Add Helium warehouse, pick up the crates and take them to a holding facility. Robotka said Voissem, who was in the meeting, looked distressed. She told the agents, according to Robotka, “The crates are gone. Peter had me ship them.”

Sotis disagrees with that narrative, saying he told the agents that the merchandise was already gone, but it was picked up by a company hired by Ramas. Add Helium, Sotis said, did not arrange to have the items shipped out.

“I said, ‘you don’t understand, they already picked up the items,’ ” Sotis said.

By Aug. 26, Zaghab knew the shipment was confiscated and demanded in an email to Sotis that it was Add Helium’s responsibility to get the merchandise released.

“We have never ever had any problem shipping merchandise to Libya as we follow, as stated before, all rules and regulations and perform due diligence to ensure that each shipment is in compliance,” Zaghab wrote.

But Sotis said by then, Wagner told him to cut off communication with Ramas.

“I told him, ‘we’ve been directed by the United States government not to have contact with you,’ ” Sotis said.

Sotis said the agents told him that the merchandise is being held until investigators can check out Bensadik and determine whether his plans for the dive gear are benign. If Bensadik and his people check out, Sotis said the agents told him, they’ll release it to them. If not, Sotis would get the equipment back and be allowed to keep the money from the transaction.

“I told them I don’t want the items. I’m not going to get in the middle of a situation with potential terrorists and the U.S. government,” Sotis said. “I’m staying out of it.”

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204