Talking Justice: The Unprecedented Trial of Teodorin Obiang

Talking Justice: The Unprecedented Trial of Teodorin Obiang

It took a 10-year legal battle, but finally, on June 19, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, vice president of Equatorial Guinea, went to trial in Paris, France, on charges of money laundering and diversion of public funds.

It’s the first time such a senior public figure has gone on trial for corruption outside his home country. Nicknamed Teodorin, the son of the country’s dictatorial president stands accused of using Equatorial Guinea’s treasury as a personal bank account—diverting millions to spend on assets, including a set of luxury sports cars, a 76-meter yacht, and a five-floor, 101-room mansion on Avenue Foch, one of most prestigious addresses in Paris.

Meanwhile, in Equatorial Guinea itself, most of the population of some 900,000 people scrapes by on one dollar per day, despite a per capita gross domestic product, fueled by oil exports, that is comparable to that of many industrialized nations.

In this edition of Talking Justice, host James A. Goldston talks to Tutu Alicante, head of the United States–based advocacy group EG Justice about what this trial means for Equato Guineans. The Justice Initiative’s Shirley Pouget, who has been attending the trial in Paris, also joins the podcast, and anticorruption expert Rick Messick outlines the role played by French civil society groups in pursuing Teodorin’s unprecedented case.

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JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

Hello, I’m Jim Goldston of the Open Society Justice Initiative, welcoming you to this month’s edition of Talking Justice, a podcast that focuses on stories of law, justice, and human rights from around the world. This month, we’re going to Paris for a story that begins in the small African state of Equatorial Guinea.

(FOREIGN LANGUAGE NOT TRANSCRIBED)

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

That’s the voice of Teodoro Nguema Obiang, currently first vice president of Equatorial Guinea, speaking to a gathering of political supporters back in 2013. In this, Africa’s only Spanish speaking country, he’s often referred to as “Teodorin,” or “Little Theodore,” to distinguish him from his father, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who’s been in power since 1979, making him Africa and the world’s longest serving president. But what’s this got to do with Paris?

(FOREIGN LANGUAGE NOT TRANSCRIBED)

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

Well, on Monday, June 19, 48-year-old Teodorin went on trial in Paris, accused of using funds misappropriated from the country’s treasury to invest in France. Teodorin isn’t actually present in the courtroom. But the three-week trial is already remarkable, the product of a ten-year effort by anticorruption NGOs, in what’s known is France as the Biens Mal Acquis, or Ill-Gotten Gains, affair.

But first, some background. Equatorial Guinea has a population of some 900,000 people. It also produces more than 200,000 barrels a day of oil from offshore fields first discovered in 1995, a potential ticket to prosperity. But despite the government’s efforts to portray Equatorial Guinea as an economic success story, for many people there, reality is different.

Despite the oil money, much of the population outside the elite remain in extreme poverty. Political opposition to the president, the target of an alleged coup in 2004, is tolerated in name only. Tutu Alicante heads an advocacy group based in the United States, EG Justice.

TUTU ALICANTE:

Because of the oil and gas reserves and the production of oil and gas, the income of the country is very, very high. So, when you divide that income, in theory, when an economy is divided, look at the number of people and the amount of money generated—clearly, it gives you a high GDP per capita. Nevertheless, when you travel to Equatorial Guinea or when you speak to the majority of people in Equatorial Guinea, you begin to get a real sense of human beings, what their living standard is, what the well-being of people is in that country.

I speak to my mother almost every single week. I speak to my siblings on a weekly or daily basis. I speak to people on a daily basis. Most people went to [UNINTELLIGBLE], a lawyer, a doctor that I work with, or friend in a campaign, or an anticorruption activist that they work with, will tell you on a daily basis, “Look, I cannot check my email because I don’t have internet. I cannot check my email because I don’t have electricity.” Or, “I wasn’t there because I have to go fetch water, take the car and go miles and miles and miles to buy gallons of water.”

So, people are still living without the most basic necessities. Education, health care, all these continue to be a high commodity for most people in Equatorial Guinea. When I say, “most people,” I’m talking about 75-80 percent of the people who lack those basic necessities—necessities that, given the amount of money in that country, the government can definitely afford.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

The inequities of Equatorial Guinea are embodied in the conspicuous consumption of Teodorin. He owns a 76-meter luxury yacht, valued at around 100 million euros, a fleet of luxury sports cars, a personal jet plane, and a 110 million euro mansion on Avenue Foch in the heart of Paris. But what’s all that got to do with his being on trial? Why is allegedly misappropriating funds in Equatorial Guinea a problem in France? One of my colleagues at the Open Society Justice Initiative, Shirley Pouget, has been in the Courtroom in Paris following the trial.

SHIRLEY POUGET:

So, the sense of the case is a case of money laundering that took place in France. He allegedly laundered over 200 million euros through the purchase of goods, and also 100 million euros mentioned located on Avenue Foch. So, he bought cars and jewelry and wine and many other very luxurious stuff on the French territory. So, this is why he’s being tried before French Courts. So the judge will have to make a determination on whether they have sufficient evidence to pull the l’origin illicite of funds. So that will be obviously discussd.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

But doesn’t Mr. Obiang argue that the source of the funds were perfectly legal under Equatorial Guinea law?

SHIRLEY POUGET:

I suspect their defense line is going to be that they are going to argue that the origins of the funds are completely legal because in Equatorial Guinea the government allows public officials to have economic interests in private companies while sitting as a public official. So that’s one part of the defense.

Then I think the second argument they’re going to put forward—and I don’t want to say too much about that—but it’s likely that they are going to say that the offenses of breach of trust, breach of assets, diversion of public funds, and so on and so forth, are not prohibited under Equatorial Guinean law. And if they are prohibited, they may argue that civil servants are prohibited from committing those offenses, but Mr. Obiang is not a public servant, a civil servant.

So that might be a second argument they’re going to put forward. Likely, they are going to say that the French Courts do not have jurisdiction to hear that case because he’s an incumbent senior public official. And therefore, he’s immune from prosecution. So, I think those three arguments are going to be discussed.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

The Paris case isn’t the first legal action against Obiang. In the United States, the Anti-Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative of the Department of Justice brought a civil suit against Teodorin in 2011, seeking to seize U.S. assets, including a villa in Malibu, California, luxury cars, a private jet, and a collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia. All, according to the DOJ, acquired with the proceeds of corruption.

In 2014, Teodorin agreed to pay a $30 million forfeiture to the United States to settle the complaint. But the case in France was initially driven not by the state’s prosecutors, but by two civil society groups: Association Sherpa, an anticorruption legal group, and the French branch of Transparency International. I asked Rick Messick, a contributing editor to the global anticorruption blog, to explain.

RICK MESSICK:

It’s really significant that this was a case initiated by NGOs when there was a feeling that the French government did not want to upset rulers of African countries. But the French criminal law allows the victim of a crime to initiate a prosecution, to ask the prosecutor to open a case. And if the prosecutor declines, to, in effect, bring a lawsuit against the prosecutor to force the prosecutor to open the case.

That’s what occurred in France. And, indeed, it was one of the local NGOs, Transparency International (the French branch), who argued that, indeed, “Our members are victims of this crime because we are morally opposed to corruption everywhere. And this corruption is enormous, egregious, and therefore, we’re suffering harm. Therefore, prosecutor, open a case.”

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

Do you see that kind of argument having weight before prosecutors in courts in other countries as well, or is this limited, do you think, pretty much to France?

RICK MESSICK:

We hope the French precedent will encourage other prosecutors to pursue similar cases. And, indeed, prosecutors in the United States have opened similar cases even though in the United States, unlike France, the only thing a civil society group can do is simply urge the prosecutor to open the case. In France, they have legal means to force the prosecutor to open a case. In the United States, and indeed in a number of countries, all a victim of a crime or a civil society group can do is urge the prosecutor to open the case.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

The Obiang trial is expected to conclude in early July. If convicted, the court may order the seizure of assets in France, and could impose a ten-year prison sentence on Teodorin. Even though he’s unlikely to spend a day in jail, that could bar him from traveling anywhere in the European Union.

Whichever way the case goes, appeals are expected. And the case has already demonstrated one thing: how civil society groups like Sherpa and Transparency International can advance the battle against high-level corruption. We at the Open Society Justice Initiative have played some role in this. Our lawyers have brought a complaint against the Obiang family’s corrupt practices before the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.

But this is also a battle that needs to go beyond targeting individual corrupt leaders, to address an entire system of politically connected bankers, lawyers, real estate developers, and others who profit from ill-gotten gains. But for now, say Tutu Alicante, the Teodorin trial is already a success.

TUTU ALICANTE:

So, this is the first chance that Equatorial Guineans themselves get a chance to tell the story about what Teodorin has done to this country, what the Obiang family, in fact, has done and continues to do to this country. So that’s one.

Secondly, this is the first time that we actually get, unfortunately, not Teodorin himself, but his surrogate to actually have to defend what their client did. As you know, in the case in the U.S., the case settled before anyone had to testify.

And the case settled without any full admission of guilt by Teodorin. Granted, it wasn’t a case against him, it was a case against his property. But the fact that the case settled and did not give Teodorin’s lawyers or anyone—did not put him in the hot seat to come and have to face to the people of Equatorial Guinea and explain how those millions disappear from national treasury to make their way to Malibu, or in the case of France, to make their way to Avenue Foch. This is something that the people of Equatorial Guinea deserve. And it’s something that we’ll definitely get this time.

And then, third, and very, very importantly, for those Equatorial Guineans that are following this case, whether because those of us that have access can translate that via Facebook or via WhatsApp or via whatever social networks we are connected to, this is the first time that the broader people inside the country get to know that these guys are not untouchable.

And we begin to put a different face, we begin to spin that story we have in Equatorial Guinea that the goat eats wherever [UNINTELLIGIBLE], basically condoning or justifying corruption. We begin to change that narrative. It’s certainly going to take longer than this trial, but this is, for me, a great departing point for that.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

And that’s it for this month’s edition of Talking Justice. I’m Jim Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, part of the Open Society Foundations.

We’ll be back next month, talking again about law, justice, and human rights stories from around the world. Thanks for listening.

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