Paris, France, Jan 2 – The playboy son of Equatorial Guinea’s leader, notorious for his extravagant taste in cars, homes and Michael Jackson memorabilia, went on trial Monday in France accused of plundering his country to fund his jetset lifestyle.
Teodorin Obiang, his country’s vice-president, is suspected of using more than 100 million euros ($106 million) of state money to buy a mansion on one of the swankiest avenues in Paris as well as a collection of Italian supercars.
As proceedings opened on Monday without the 47-year-old party-loving bachelor, his lawyers called for the trial to be adjourned. The time to prepare his defence was “far too short,” his lawyer Emmanuel Marsigny told the court.
The court said it would announce on Wednesday its decision on the defence’s request for the adjournment, which was called a “delaying” tactic by the prosecution and the NGO Transparency International, one of the plaintiffs in the case.
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.
It sets a precedent for France which has long turned a blind eye to African dictators parking 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.
“In the beginning, there was simply no political will in France to listen to us,” William Bourdon, a lawyer for Sherpa, wrote in September.
Equatorial Guinea, Africa’s only Spanish-speaking nation, is the continent’s third-biggest oil producer but more than half of its population live below the poverty line.
It is regularly criticised by human rights groups for its repressive laws, corruption, as well as unlawful killings and torture by its security forces.
– Timber fortune –
Obiang is not expected to attend the trial or serve jail time even if he is convicted of the charges of corruption, embezzlement, misuse of public funds and breach of trust.
US officials said he had “shamelessly” looted his country in 2014 and forced him to forfeit property including a villa in Malibu and some of his Michael Jackson collection.
In November, Swiss prosecutors said they had also 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 76-metre (250-foot) yacht “Ebony Shine” was seized in the Netherlands in December, according to the Swiss magazine L’Hebdo.
In Paris his house on Avenue Foch, which boasts a cinema, spa, hair salon and taps covered in gold leaf, is estimated to be worth around 107 million euros.
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.
Prosecutors allege the shopaholic 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.
This powerful position 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,” Marsigny told AFP before the start of the trial.
Obiang and the Equatorial Guinea government have fought unsuccessfully to prevent the case coming to trial, including at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
It rejected a request to suspend the case in December.
– ‘Bad’ glove –
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”.
His overall wealth is difficult to estimate, but the US Justice Department said in 2014 that he had racked up $300 million through embezzlement, extortion and money laundering.
In a US cable published by the WikiLeaks website in 2010, Obiang was said to live “the life of an international playboy and is widely accused of corruption.”
The music fan is known to have a collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia and bought a crystal-covered glove worn by the artist during his “Bad” tour, worth hundreds of thousands of euros.