Civil Society Groups Urge U.S. Caution in Equatorial Guinea Corruption Settlement

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NEW YORK (August 5, 2014)—The U.S. Justice Department is being urged to ensure that any settlement of its anti-corruption case against Teodorin Nguema Obiang, son of the ruler of Equatorial Guinea, protects the interests of the country’s people and others linked to the case.

A joint letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, signed by the Open Society Justice Initiative and three other civil society groups, commends the department’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative for its bid to seize over $70m in corruptly-acquired goods from Nguema Obiang, in twin legal actions filed before federal courts in California and the District of Columbia.

The assets targeted include a beachfront mansion in Malibu, California; a Gulfstream executive debt; a Ferrari 599 GTO sports car; and a diamond-studded glove once used by the pop-star Michael Jackson.

Court statements filed in July indicate that both sides are now involved in talks to settle the case.

The joint letter submitted to Attorney General Holder urges the Justice Department to ensure that the terms of any settlement do not undermine the Kleptocracy Initiative’s stated commitment to showing that “the United States will not be a hiding place for the ill-gotten riches of the world’s corrupt leaders.”

To that end, the four groups are urging that any settlement:

  • Ensures that the Obiang family does not retain de facto control over any seized assets that are intended to benefit the people of Equatorial Guinea, as the victims of Obiang’s corrupt practices;
  • Puts in place effective protections to prevent reprisals against potential beneficiaries of the agreement;
  • Does not contain language that would in any way exonerate Teodorin Obiang;
  • Requires the release and safe exit from Equatorial Guinea of Roberto Berardi, a former business associate of Teodorin Nguema Obiang with information that could corroborate key allegations in the Justice Department’s case.  Mr. Berardi has been imprisoned in the country since January 2013 and subject to abuse.

The letter also cites several incidents in which Nguema and his associates “have repeatedly demonstrated disrespect for judicial process in the United States and in their own country, including a willingness to disregard express undertakings made by them or their representatives”. These include removing targeted assets from the United States, including the pop memorabilia collection, and apparent efforts to disguise the ownership of the Gulfstream.

In view of these actions, the letter says that “great care and some degree of skepticism will be required to ensure that the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative actually achieves what it bargains for in any agreement”, while avoiding any inadvertent harm to the intended beneficiaries of a settlement.

In addition to the Justice Initiative, the letter is signed by Asociación pro Derechos Humanos de España (APDHE), Association Sherpa (France) and EG Justice.

The Justice Initiative, as part of its anti-corruption work, is collaborating with APDHE in a money laundering case brought in Spain against the Obiang family, which has controlled Equatorial Guinea for over 30 years.