Equatorial Guinea playboy on trial in landmark French case

PARIS: The son of Equatorial Guinea’s leader, a notorious playboy with extravagant taste in cars, homes and Michael Jackson memorabilia, will go on trial for corruption next week in a landmark case in France. Teodorin Obiang, the 47-year-old vice-president of his oil-rich African country, faces widening legal problems as authorities in France and Switzerland probe his extraordinary lifestyle. US officials have already forced him to forfeit property bought with the proceeds of corruption and have accused him of “shamelessly” looting his country.

In Europe, his luxury 76-metre yacht “Ebony Shine” has been seized, as has his collection of Italian supercars and a mansion on one of Paris’ glitziest avenues. That property alone on Avenue Foch, where the taps are covered in gold leaf, is estimated to be worth around 107 million euros. It includes a private cinema, spa, hair salon and sports room. When French judicial officials first launched raids in Paris in 2011, they hired trucks to haul away his Bugattis, Ferraris, Rolls Royce and other cars which were memorably photographed leaving the scene. The trial from Monday sets a precedent for France which has long turned a blind eye to African dictators who routinely park their ill-gotten gains in Parisian real estate and luxury products.

It came about after nearly a decade of lobbying by African anti-corruption campaigners and Transparency International who have targeted Obiang as well as the leaders of Gabon and Congo. “In the beginning, there was simply no political will in France to listen to us,” wrote one of the campaigners, William Bourdon from the Sherpa group, in September. French prosecutors allege that party-loving Obiang plundered nearly 110 million euros between 2004-2011 when he was agriculture minister for his father Teodoro Obiang Nguema. The money allegedly came directly from state accounts and was used by him personally, rather than on the country’s citizens — more than half of whom live in extreme poverty.

As agriculture minister he held a powerful position that gave him control over the lucrative timber industry which is Equatorial Guinea’s main export after oil. A so-called “revolutionary” tax imposed on wood sales was transferred to his personal accounts, prosecutors allege. Facing charges of laundering the proceeds of corruption, embezzlement, misuse of public funds and breach of trust, he plans to plead not guilty. He has “always said that he earned the money legally in his country,” one of his lawyers, Emmanuel Marsigny, said. Marsigny is planning to immediately ask for a delay in proceedings to give him more time to prepare Obiang’s defence. Multiple hearings have been planned for the first two weeks of January. — AFP