A Paris appeals court last week upheld an arrest warrant that had been issued in July 2012 for Teodorin Nguema Obiang Mangue (“Teodorin Obiang”), who is the President of Equatorial Guinea’s son and who also holds the posts of Vice President and Minister of Agriculture and Forestry in Equatorial Guinea. The arrest warrant in France had been issued in respect of money laundering and corruption charges. Meanwhile in the US, the Department of Justice announced this week that it will be intensifying its efforts to seize assets held in the US by Teodorin Obiang.
The Teodorin Obiang case in France is part of a larger action initiated by Transparency International and the NGO SHERPA in the French courts following a report by NGO CCFD/Terre Solidaire entitled "Biens mals acquis 2009". Proceedings were issued against the Heads of State of Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Congo and their families, requesting an investigation into how they acquired a vast array of assets including properties, fleets of cars and bank accounts in France. Lengthy proceedings followed, which eventually resulted in France's Supreme Court confirming that Transparency International could be a valid party to a civil complaint (overturning the earlier Court of Appeal ruling).
The decision was a triumph for civil society, which for the first time gained judicial approval of its right to initiate proceedings for grand corruption. The Supreme Court's decision appears to have been based on a wide interpretation of Article 2 of the French Criminal Procedure Code, which it held, allowed for the admissibility of civil party petitions from associations whenever the targeted infraction causes direct damage to the collective interests defended by said associations.
The French Supreme Court opened a judicial enquiry that has resulted in 15 cars being seized worth US $11 million and a Paris villa thought to be worth £150m belonging to Teodorin Obiang. The President’s son has denied the charges against him and claims that his wealth was acquired through legitimate business deals.
In last week’s decision, the Paris appeals court upheld the seizure of the Paris villa in which art, antiques and fine wines worth millions of euros were also confiscated. The appeals court rejected the applicants’ argument that the villa did not belong to him and was used for diplomatic purposes.
The appeal was the latest in a series of attempts to challenge the action taken against the President’s son. On 25 September 2012, Equatorial Guinea filed a request at the International Court of Justice (“ICJ”) for the annulment of the investigations, the arrest warrant and the proceedings against Teodorin Obiang in France, claiming that the actions violated the principles of equality, non-intervention, sovereignty and immunity. The application also requested the return of the assets seized by the French authorities. The case did not progress in the ICJ as both Equatorial Guinea and France are not signatories to the ICJ Optional Protocol and France declined to consent to the ICJ’s jurisdiction pursuant to Article 38(5) of the ICJ Statute.
Similar investigations are on-going in the US where Teodorin Obiang is reported to own a $30m Malibu mansion, a $38.5m Gulfstream jet and over $2m worth of Michael Jackson memorabilia. In April 2013, the asset recovery effort in the US suffered a blow when a federal judge announced that prosecutors had not satisfactorily proved that the Gulfstream jet was linked to corruption. Press reports this week indicate that since the federal judge’s announcement, the US Justice Department has declared that it is amplifying efforts to seize the jet by amending its complaint with additional allegations to support its case. In a separate forfeiture claim filed in October 2012, the Justice Department is reportedly also seeking to seize the mansion, the Michael Jackson memorabilia and a 2011 Ferrari 599 GTO.
Equatorial Guinea has also been in the public eye in the past week due to comments made by UK Prime Minister David Cameron in his speech on the G8 agenda of transparency, trade and tax on 15 June. Mr Cameron said that despite Equatorial Guinea being Africa’s third largest oil producer, its human development record remained extremely poor and he attributed this to poor transparency and corruption. Mr Cameron also specifically mentioned the wealth amassed by Teodorin Obiang in the United States. The comments sparked a response from Equatorial Guinea on 18 June in a communiqué from the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation published on the official webpage of the Government of Equatorial Guinea. In this communiqué, the Government defends Equatorial Guinea’s position, claiming that the country has made advances in the fields of health and education through “the efficient use of the limited resources coming from the oil” and highlights the US federal judge’s decision referred to above.
The Paris appeal court’s decision and the US Justice Department’s announcement make positive reading for those championing asset recovery initiatives in respect of Equatorial Guinea; however, the experience in both jurisdictions highlights the challenges faced in any asset recovery action. Without the cooperation of a requesting victim state, unilateral attempts to seize assets will be confronted by a number of problems, including collating the evidence to establish the link between the asset and the alleged corrupt practices.
Despite these challenges, the stand taken by countries such as the US and France does serve as a warning to officials that are suspected of corruption that they will not be allowed to accumulate their assets in those jurisdictions. Of course, countries including the US, France and the UK can do much more to relay this message through more action and not just words. The initiation of court proceedings by civil society in France is also encouraging and may lead to further support for the facilitation of similar rights of action to be taken by civil society in other countries, particularly where the government of a victim state has no political will to pursue claims.
The above developments certainly continue to highlight the need for a wider debate involving numerous stakeholders about some of the difficulties in both recovering and repatriating stolen assets, and how these hurdles can be overcome, as well as how to prevent the laundering of such money through financial systems in the first place.