Paris, France, Dec 31 – 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 impoverished but 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 (250-foot) 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.
— Timber wealth —
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, told AFP.
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.
The defendant, who has failed with previous legal efforts to stop the trial, is not expected to attend or serve any sentence if he is convicted.
— Shameless looting —
Born in 1969, Obiang was 10 when his father overthrew his bloodthirsty uncle, the dictator Francisco Macias Nguema, who liked being called “the unique miracle of Equatorial Guinea”.
After independence from Spain in 1968, Macias Nguema closed schools and hospitals, dismantled railway lines and banned the wearing of shoes in the deeply poor country.
Now the longest-serving African 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 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 they towed away 11 luxury cars, including a Bugatti Veyron worth around two million euros.
Equatorial Guinea is regularly criticised by human rights groups for its repressive laws, unlawful killings, use of torture and corruption.