African Satrap’s Laundered Millions Confiscated in France

On Oct. 27, a court in Paris convicted the eldest son of the President of Equatorial Guinea, in absentia for embezzling tens of millions of euros from his government and laundering the proceeds in France.

Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue was sentenced in absentia to a suspended three-year jail sentence and forfeiture of assets in France valued at more than €100 million (US$116.42 million). Obiang was nowhere to be seen at the trial.

Equatorial Guinea, a tiny nation of only 1.25 million people tucked between Gabon and Cameroon on Africa’s western flank, is nonetheless one of the continent’s biggest oil producers, much of which is bought in the United States. The country’s oil riches have earned President Obiang photo ops with Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama although Transparency International ranks Equatorial Guinea among the world’s 12 most corrupt states. It ranks 144th on the United Nations Human Development Index. Some 20 percent of its children die before the age of 5.

Because the sentence and fine are suspended, they will only go into effect if Teodorin, as Obiang’s son is known, commits another crime in France. He has 10 days to appeal, according to a press statement from Human Rights Watch.

But if Teodorin is troubled at the loss of his €100 million, he has plenty of comfort left. According to a study of the notorious Tanzania-based FBME Bank, the President of Equatorial Guinea has at least US$70 million stashed in the Cyprus unit of the bank.

The US government, in a case filed in US District Court in Washington, DC, charged that FBME allegedly “facilitated money laundering, terrorist financing, transnational organized crime, fraud schemes, sanctions evasion, weapons proliferation, corruption by politically exposed persons, and other financial crimes.”

The bank, whose parent was registered in the Cayman Islands, was finally been put out of business earlier this month when the court ruled it had lost its case because its Cayman registry had lapsed. The bank’s lawyers lost their attempt to get it reinstated after having persuaded Cayman authorities to re-register it retroactively. But on Oct. 31, the district court denied their final appeal. The case had been on appeal from a ruling three years ago by the US Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) denying it access to the US global electronic financial transmission system.

Nonetheless, the Obiangs are not alone among notorious depositors. Others include Gimmy Ricci, an Italian who formerly headed a construction company in Equatorial Guinea who was kicked out of the country but has US$23.19 million stashed in the bank; Zibar Management, headed by Dmitry Klyven, believed to be head of the sprawling Russian Mafia; the daughter of Angolan President Eduardo Dos Santos; and at least six companies believed to be connected to the looting of US$230 million from Hermitage Capital, once the largest international investor in the Russian stock market.

Teodorin, the subject of a long list of international money-laundering investigations, is known for his extravagant lifestyle and international purchases. In 2012 the US Department of Justice calculated that Teodorin had spent US$315 million around the world between 2004 and 2011 on properties, cars, and luxury goods.

According to Human Rights Watch, that is nearly a third more than the government’s annual spending on health and education combined in 2011, the most recent year for which there is data. At the time, Teodorin was the country’s agriculture minister, earning an official annual salary of less than US$100,000.

The Equatorial Guinean government claims the son’s activities are leagal because domestic laws permit ministers to do business through the state through their own companies. He was promoted to vice president shortly after the French court ordered him to stand trial in a bid to give him diplomatic immunity, according to Human Rights Watch. The government then sued France unsuccessfully in the International Court of Justice to stop the prosecution, claiming it violated Teodorin’s immunity.

Among the assets seized by the French government are a 101-room mansion on Paris’s Avenue Foch valued at over €100 million, €5.7 million worth of supercars and millions more euros worth of art, jewelry, and luxury goods, according to the court decision.

Human Rights Watch and other organizations are urging the government to ensure that the funds are repatriated to the country to benefit the people who are victims of official corruption.

In 2014 Teodorin settled a case with the US Department of Justice, which alleged that he bought a California mansion, private jet, and US$2 million worth of Michael Jackson memorabilia with money stolen from the public treasury. He agreed to pay US$30 million without explicit admission of wrongdoing.

That settlement mandates that the funds be repatriated for the benefit of the Equatoguinean people, which US authorities are expected to do soon, according to Human Rights Watch, which says Switzerland is currently investigating Teodorin for money laundering, and in December 2016 it seized a luxury yacht worth US$100 million and several luxury cars.

In June, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting how the ruling elite siphon off the country’s oil wealth, particularly by owning stakes in companies awarded hugely inflated public infrastructure contracts. Graft and mismanagement exist on such a large scale that they leave little money for health and education.

“The promotion of the president’s son to vice president in an apparent effort to shield him from accountability reflects the culture of impunity in Equatorial Guinea,” a Human Rights Watch spokesman said. “With the verdict, the impunity for Equatorial Guinea’s ruling elite has finally been pierced.”