A French court will on Friday hand down a verdict in the corruption trial of Equatorial Guinea’s vice president, accused of embezzling millions in public money to fund a jet-set lifestyle in Paris.
The case, which was spearheaded by two anti-corruption groups, is the first of three targeting families of African leaders accused of using ill-gotten gains to live it up in France.
Teodorin Obiang, the 48-year-old son of Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, is accused of spending more than 1,000 times his official annual salary on a six-storey mansion in a posh part of the French capital, a fleet of fast cars and artworks, among other assets.
“Every year billions of euros are embezzled to fund the profligate lifestyle of a few corrupt leaders abroad, particularly in France,” Transparency International France, one of the two NGOs who filed the complaint that triggered the criminal investigation, said in a statement Thursday.
The organisation said it aimed “to ensure that France is no longer a place to launder money and that the embezzled money is returned to the population to which it belongs.”
The families of two other long-serving African leaders — late Gabonese leader Omar Bongo and the Republic of Congo’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso — are also being investigated in France for corruption.
Prosecutors in Obiang’s case argue he could not have funded his flashy lifestyle without pilfering public money in his west African homeland.
They have called for him to be given a three-year jail term and a 30 million-euro ($35 million) fine.
But it is unlikely the millionaire playboy with a taste for Michael Jackson memorabilia will serve time if convicted.
He did not attend his three-week trial in June and July, dismissing it as a “farce”.
His lawyers accuse France of “meddling in the affairs of a sovereign state”.
Fast cars and snazzy suits
Obiang was agriculture and forestry minister before being promoted by his father to vice president in 2012, putting him in pole position to succeed Equatorial Guinea’s leader of 38 years when the post becomes vacant.
Many of his eye-popping purchases were made through Somagui Forestal, a forestry company that prosecutors called “an empty shell used solely to channel public money”.
His tastes included sharp suits from Paris’s top tailors, whom he paid with suitcases of cash.
Obiang said the money came from legitimate sources and that all his purchases were legal.
The affair first made headlines in 2011 when French police raided Obiang’s mansion on the glitzy Avenue Foch in Paris, hiring trucks to haul away a fleet of Bugattis, Ferraris, a Rolls-Royce Phantom and other cars.
Investigators seized the property a year later.
Prosecutors have asked the court to confiscate the mansion, which is valued at 107 million euros ($123 million).
Equatorial Guinea argues that the building is a diplomatic residence, and therefore untouchable. Obiang’s lawyers have referred the issue to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.