E Guinea leader's playboy son back on trial in France

2017-06-18 12:01
Teodorin Obiang (File: AFP)

Teodorin Obiang (File: AFP)

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Paris - The high-living son of Equatorial Guinea's leader, with a taste for supercars, luxury homes and bespoke suits, goes back on trial in Paris on Monday on corruption charges after a six-month delay.

A French court agreed in January to adjourn the trial of Teodorin Obiang, his country's vice-president, at the request of his defence team.

His lawyers argued the timing of the hearings gave them too little time to call witnesses and prepare their defence.

Obiang, who turns 48 on Sunday, is charged with plundering the oil- and timber-rich west African nation's coffers to fund his jetset lifestyle in France.

He is suspected of using more than $112 million of state money - proceeds of corruption and embezzlement, prosecutors allege - to fund an array of purchases, including a mansion on one of the swankiest avenues in Paris as well as a collection of Italian supercars.

Obiang denies the charges, saying the money came from legitimate sources.

Equatorial Guinea's embassy said he is not expected to attend the trial, scheduled to run until July 6.

Huge conspiracy 

The government has denounced the trial, accusing France of perpetrating a "huge conspiracy" and leading a "vast operation of demonisation".

"We are faced with a real willingness to tarnish the image of Equatorial Guinea in terms of its government and its citizens," Miguel Oyono Ndong Mifumu, Equatorial Guinea's ambassador to France, told reporters Friday.

"This case is hollow," Ndong Mifumu said, accusing anti-corruption groups and the plaintiffs, NGOs Sherpa and Transparency International, of "manipulating French justice".

The trial is the first arising from an unprecedented investigation into the French assets of a trio of African leaders accused of leading a life of luxury abroad while their citizens live in poverty.

It sets a precedent for France which has long turned a blind eye to African dictators parking ill-gotten gains in Parisian real estate and luxury products.

The trial came about after nearly a decade of lobbying by Sherpa and Transparency.

"It is an honour for France to be the country to host the first trial for ill-gotten wealth," said William Bourdon, a lawyer for Transparency.

If convicted on the charges of corruption, embezzlement, misuse of public funds and breach of trust, Obiang faces a maximum 10 years in prison and a fine of up to 50 million euros.

'Exceptional' trial 

Estimating his wealth is a tricky business but US authorities came up with an eye-popping figure in 2014.

They put his net worth at around $300 million - built up while earning a state salary of under $100 000 a year when he was agriculture minister for his father, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Africa's longest-serving ruler.

US officials said Obiang had "shamelessly" looted his government and shook down businesses in his country to support a lavish lifestyle. They forced him to forfeit property including a villa in Malibu and some of his collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia.

But the figure of his net worth may well be an underestimate.

His Paris property portfolio includes his family's six-storey mansion on the upmarket Avenue Foch which boasts a cinema, spa and taps covered in gold leaf. It is worth an estimated 107 million euros.

"I'm always looking for something exceptional," he once told a jeweller on camera who was showing him a watch worth 146,000 francs at the time ($25 000).

Wild parties further forged Obiang's reputation as a notorious playboy living a pharaoh's life in Paris, Rio and the US.

French prosecutors have since seized the cars, lavish Paris home and other valuable items.

Diplomatic immunity? 

On Monday, Obiang's lawyer Emmanuel Marsigny is expected to argue for another postponement in the case, as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has yet to rule on whether France has violated Obiang's diplomatic immunity.

In another ruling in December, the UN's top court ordered France to "take all measures at its disposal" to ensure the "inviolability" of the building on Avenue Foch, described by Equatorial Guinea as a diplomatic mission.

France disputes that claim.

Equatorial Guinea is regularly criticised by human rights groups for its repressive laws, corruption, as well as unlawful killings and torture by its security forces.

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