The Guardian, UK: Teodorin Obiang, the son of Equatorial Guinea’s president, has been given a three-year suspended jail term by a French court for plundering public money from his oil-rich but impoverished west African state to fund a jet-set lifestyle in Paris.
Obiang, 48 – the eldest son of president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo – was tried in absentia and also given a suspended fine of €30m for embezzlement, money-laundering, corruption and abuse of trust.
The landmark case – spearheaded by two anti-corruption NGOs, Sherpa and Transparency International – marks a turning point in France, which has long turned a blind eye to the families of corrupt foreign dictators buying up Paris real estate and going on luxury spending sprees.
It is the first of three cases involving families of African leaders from various countries, including Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville, accused of using “ill-gotten gains” from their nations to fund luxury lifestyles in France.
The court demanded the confiscation of assets including Obiang’s €107m mansion near the Champs-Élysées, which boasts a hammam, disco, gym, hair-dressing studio, gold-plated taps and hundreds of artworks.
The case revealed the staggering spending habits of the presidential family of a state where a majority of people live below the poverty line. Obiang, who was appointed a vice-president by his father, was accused of spending more than 1,000 times his official annual salary on the six-storey mansion on one of Paris’s most exclusive avenues as well as a fleet of fast cars and artworks, among other assets.
The house was decorated with more than €40m-worth of furniture, including a €1.6m Louis XV desk, a Rodin sculpture and a dozen Fabergé eggs.
Obiang owned two Bugatti Veyrons, the most expensive and fastest street car in the world, costing about €1m a piece and capable of reaching 250mph — part of luxury fleet that filled the garages around the cobbled courtyard of his mansion. During the investigation, French police needed trucks to tow away 11 luxury cars worth around €5m, including a Porsche Carrera, an Aston Martin and a Mercedes Maybach. More lorries were needed to clear other assets, including bottles of wine worth thousands of euros each.
Obiang’s lifestyle was in stark contrast with that of ordinary people in Equatorial Guinea, where over the half the population lives on less than €1.65 a day despite the country being one of Africa’s top oil producers. In 2000, when Obiang began building up his car collection, Equatorial Guinea was on paper the wealthiest African country per inhabitant, yet a majority of its people lived below the UN poverty line.
French prosecutors argued Obiang could not have funded the purchases without raiding state coffers. Obiang insisted the money came from legitimate sources.
Equatorial Guinea argues that the Paris mansion is a diplomatic mission and therefore untouchable. Obiang’s lawyers have referred the issue to the international court of justice in The Hague.
In an interim ruling in December 2016, the UN court ordered France to give the property the same protections as all other diplomatic locations. It cannot be confiscated and auctioned off by French authorities until the court in The Hague has decided the matter.
Obiang’s father has ruled Equatorial Guinea – a former Spanish colony – for more than three decades, making him one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, and rights groups have labelled his administration as one of the world’s most corrupt.
William Bourdon, lawyer for Transparency International, hailed what he called a historic verdict, and a “worldwide message to all kleptocrats”.
The suspended sentences mean that Obiang will only face jail or have to pay the fine if he is found to have re-offended in France.