French authorities have begun proceedings in the corruption trial of Teodorin Obiang Nguema, the vice president of Equatorial Guinea.
The French accuse Obiang of buying a mansion and sports cars in France with a fortune amassed from oil-rich Equatorial Guinea’s public funds.
Obiang’s six-story Paris villa — estimated to be worth more than $100m (£80m) — is located on Avenue Foch, one of the most prestigious neighborhoods of the French capital. The mansion boasts a cinema, spa, hair salon, and taps covered in gold leaf.
The trial is scheduled to continue despite his lawyers’ failed bid to block proceedings based on diplomatic immunity for their client.
In December, the United Nations International Court of Justice turned down Obiang’s appeal, after French prosecutors argued that the charges are related to his private life in France and not to his official functions.
Obiang’s trial is widely considered in many quarters as a clear paradigm shift in French foreign policy since his trial is the first corruption trial in France that involves a foreign leader.
The French government ditched its old policy of granting near absolute diplomatic immunity and asylum to past and present African leaders accused of illegally acquiring wealth during their time in office.
The move is hoped to strengthen France’s diplomatic foothold in Africa and has been welcomed by anti-corruption campaigners both within and outside Africa.
Lawyers representing Obiang continue to argue, though, that their client has made his fortune legally, with one of his lawyers, Emmanuel Marsigny, saying, “Mr. Nguema is not a big-time bandit. He just wants his rights observed.”
Marsigny also asked the court to delay the trial, saying that he needed more time to prepare his client’s defense.
Targeted in Other Countries
At least two other countries in Europe have instituted corruption and money laundering proceedings against Obiang: In November, Swiss law enforcement said they had seized 11 luxury super cars belonging to him.
The seized vehicles included a Ferrari Enzo and 599GTB, a Lamborghini Veneno, a Maybach, the rare Koenigesegg, a Bugatti Veyron that sells for $2m (£1.7m), and a Porsche 918 Spyder valued at more than $830,000 (£667,000), the Geneva prosecutor’s office said.
In 2014, U.S. authorities seized property worth more than $30 million belonging to Obiang, after he agreed to surrender in a plea bargain. The assets included a Ferrari; a mansion in Malibu, California; and an impressive collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia. He is also reputed to own a $38.5 million Gulfstream jet.
Obiang, 47, is the son of Equatorial Guinea’s current President and strongman ruler Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Obiang became the vice president and some say the president in-waiting of Equatorial Guinea in 2012, following a presidential decree announced by his father.
Obiang senior, aged 74, has ruled Equatorial Guinea for 42 years straight, after he seized power in a 1979 bloody coup.
BY MARK BABATUNDE