The son of Equatorial Guinea’s president was found guilty by the Paris criminal court of using ill-gotten gains to buy assets in France ranging from a mansion worth more than 100 million euros ($116 million) near the Champs-Elysees in Paris to a fleet of super-cars, including a Bugatti Veyron, a Rolls-Royce Phantom and a Maserati.
While Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, who is his country’s vice president, won’t have to serve any jail time, judges decided to confiscate assets seized during the investigation worth tens of millions of euros. He was given a 3-year suspended jail sentence and a suspended fine of 30 million euros.
Nguema Obiang — the 48-year-old son of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Africa’s longest-serving leader — has also been under investigation by Swiss and American authorities. He was accused in the U.S. of using his government position to collect corrupt money, enabling him to buy a $30 million mansion in Malibu, California, a Gulfstream jet, Michael Jackson memorabilia and a Ferrari.
In France, investigators alleged that Nguema Obiang spent tens of millions to acquire and maintain the Paris mansion on Avenue Foch on a $80,000-a-year position as a government minister Equatorial Guinea. He also bought jewelry worth 10 million euros and a fleet of cars worth about 6 million euros, according to the indictment. Nguema Obiang spent 18 million euros at an auction in February 2009 that included the private art collection of Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Berge.
Judge Benedicte de Perthuis said the ruling should come as a “warning” to anyone involved in money laundering and went on to criticize Societe Generale SA and France’s central bank even though neither was on trial.
The Paris judge pointed out that Societe Generale’s Equatorial Guinean unit transferred funds from Nguema Obiang’s accounts into Europe even though money deposited there came from the country’s treasury. She also criticized France’s central bank for playing a “decisive role” in Nguema Obiang’s acquisitions of assets in the country after funds transited through its accounts.
While acknowledging Societe Generale didn’t have the power to properly control its Equatorial Guinean unit, in which it didn’t have a board majority, and thus be accountable in court, de Perthuis said the bank’s “complacency” enabled the infringement to go on for several years. Representatives at Societe Generale and the central bank didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Given this context, a mandatory jail term for Nguema Obiang appeared “neither justified, nor appropriate,” said Judge de Perthuis.
Nguema Obiang’s lawyers say he gained diplomatic immunity in 2012, just as French authorities issued an international arrest warrant for him, when he became Equatorial Guinea’s vice president. One of his lawyers, Thierry Marembert, said he plans to discuss with his client whether to appeal the court’s “delirious” ruling.
“It’s a decision to convict while fearing to really convict,” Marembert said in an interview, referring to the suspended jail sentence and fine. “Through a desire of all-mightiness, the ruling flouts the rule of law to hand down a conviction that is rather moral than legal, which is clearly not the judge’s role.”
While Nguema Obiang, who wasn’t present for Friday’s verdict, already reached a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department in 2014, Swiss prosecutors said last year that their investigation is still at a preliminary stage.
William Bourdon, a lawyer for Transparency International, which was at the origin of the French case by lodging a complaint in 2008 to request the start of a criminal probe into suspicions of ill-gotten gains, said the verdict was “historic.”
“The court clearly states that the counts of laundering were made possible because of a form of tolerance at three levels,” he said in reference to Societe Generale, the French central bank and French authorities. “It’s an unprecedented and global message the court is sending to kleptocrats. It is the beginning of the end for this rule of impunity and immunity that these kleptocrats imagined was eternal and universal.”
Judge de Perthuis sought to fend off criticism that the ruling exceeds France’s jurisdiction.
“We aren’t passing judgment on events that took place in Equatorial Guinea. The money laundering took place in France,” she said, adding that the total amounts laundered are evaluated at about 150 million euros. “Given its transnational character, money laundering calls upon a worldwide clampdown.”
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