PARIS: The playboy son of Equatorial Guinea’s leader, notorious for his extravagant taste in cars, homes and Michael Jackson memorabilia, goes on trial yesterday in Paris charged with plundering his country’s coffers to fund his jet set lifestyle in France. Teodorin Obiang, his country’s vice-president, is accused of using state money to buy a mansion on one of the swankiest avenues in Paris as well as a collection of Italian supercars and other luxury items. His lawyers have said they will call Monday for the trial to be adjourned, saying they need more time to prepare his defense.
The trial is the first arising out of an investigation into the French assets of a trio of African leaders accused of leading a life of luxury abroad while their citizens live in poverty. The 47-year-old shopaholic is not expected to attend the trial where he has been charged with corruption, embezzlement, misuse of public funds and breach of trust. US officials have already forced him to forfeit property bought with the proceeds of corruption, accusing him of “shamelessly” looting his country. His house on Avenue Foch in Paris, which boasts a cinema, spa, hair salon and taps covered in gold leaf, is estimated to be worth around 107 million Euros ($112 million).
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. The case 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 anti-corruption groups Sherpa and Transparency International. “In the beginning, there was simply no political will in France to listen to us,” William Bourdon, a lawyer for Sherpa, wrote in September.
French prosecutors allege that party-loving Obiang lined his pockets to the tune of nearly 110 million Euros between 2004-2011, when he was agriculture minister for his father, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema. As agriculture minister, the permanent bachelor 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. He has “always said that he earned the money legally in his country,” one of his lawyers, Emmanuel Marsigny, said. Obiang fought unsuccessfully to prevent the trial. In December, the International Court of Justice in the Hague rejected a request by Equatorial Guinea to suspend the case.
Born in 1969, Obiang was 10 when his father overthrew his bloodthirsty uncle, the dictator Francisco Macias Nguema. Now Africa’s longest-serving ruler, Teodoro Obiang Nguema made his son vice-president in June just after being re-elected with his usual score of more than 90 percent of votes cast. During one of his appeals against the French trial, a lawyer acting for the French government said Obiang had a “compulsive need to buy”. In a US cable published by the WikiLeaks website in 2010, Teodorin was said to live “the life of an international playboy and is widely accused of corruption.” In a settlement with US prosecutors in 2014, Obiang agreed to turn over more than $30 million in property-including a Malibu villa, a Ferrari and Michael Jackson memorabilia.
The music fan is known to have bought a crystal-covered glove worn by Michael Jackson during his “Bad” tour, which is worth hundreds of thousands of Euros. The US Justice Department said he “embarked on a corruption-fuelled spending spree in the United States” after racking up $300 million through embezzlement, extortion, and money laundering. In November, Swiss prosecutors said they had opened a money laundering probe targeting Obiang and seized 11 luxury cars in Geneva, including a Bugatti Veyron worth around two million Euros.
As part of that investigation, his luxury 76-metre (250-foot) yacht “Ebony Shine” was seized in the Netherlands in December, according to the Swiss magazine L’Hebdo. Equatorial Guinea, Africa’s only Spanish-speaking nation, is the continent’s third-biggest oil producer. Analysts say the energy boom has benefitted only a select few. The country is also regularly criticized by human rights groups for repressive laws, unlawful killings, torture and corruption.–AFP