The Obiang Trial: Lessons from a Decade-long Legal Battle

The trial of Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Nguema Obiang before a French court for what is in effect kleptocracy is by any measure a giant step forward in the fight against grand corruption.  Indeed, it is such a significant milestone that GAB has, thanks to the Open Society Justice Initiative’s Shirley Pouget and Ken Hurwitz, provided readers in-depth reports of how it is unfolding (here, here, here, here, here, here).

Criminal trials are the result of a long and complex process meant to protect a defendant’s rights, and frustratingly, these human rights safeguards provide wealthy defendants, no matter their guilt, with many opportunities to derail a case.  In Teodorin’s case, not only does he have apparently limitless resources to spend on lawyers to pursue every legal defense to the nth degree, but the government of Equatorial Guinea, a family enterprise run by his father, has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep Teodorin from facing justice: naming him an ambassador to try and create a defense of diplomatic immunity, claiming that property he bought is state-owned and thus immune from legal challenge, and even filing an action against the French government in the International Court of Justice.

As Shirley and Ken draft the next installment in their series, this is an opportune time to stand back and examine how these many obstacles were overcome.   How did it come to pass that a senior official of the government of Equatorial Guinea is being held accountable before a criminal court in Paris for the wholesale theft of his nation’s wealth?  And more importantly, what can be done to ensure the Obiang trial is no fluke?  That the hundreds, if not thousands, of public officials who have stolen massive amounts from the people of their countries also find themselves in court answering for their crimes.

Thankfully, a fine paper answering these questions is now available. Authored by French attorney Maude Perdriel-Vaissière, a critical actor in shepherding the Obiang case through the French legal system, it recounts how a small, dedicated band of civil society activists overcame the many legal and political obstacles to bring Obiang before the bar of justice.  She describes how a report by the French NGO Comité Catholique contre la Faim et pour le Développement exposed the enormity of the crimes of Obiang and other African kleptocrats; how three other French NGOs — Sherpa, Survie, and Fédération des Congolais de la Diaspora – filed an action to force French prosecutors to open a case; Transparency International France’s role in overcoming procedural hurdles to an NGO complaint; and the many roadblocks the government of Equatorial Guinea threw up to try and derail the case.  Throughout she chronicles the dedicated work of French investigators, prosecutors, and judges  — deterred neither by EG’s extraordinary legal maneuvers nor by the political pressure coming from some members of the French political elite.

Avocate Perdriel-Vaissière’s paper is the tenth in a series commissioned by the Open Society Justice Initiative on civil society and anticorruption litigation.  It follows earlier ones on i) standing by GAB editor-in-chief Matthew Stephenson, ii) civil society litigation in India by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy Director Arghya Sengupta, iii) private suits for defrauding government by Houston Law School Professor David Kwok, iv) private prosecution in the U.K. by Tamlyn Edmonds and David Jugnarain, v) damages for bribery under American law by this writer, vi) public trust theory by Professor Elmarie van der Schyff, a professor of law at South Africa’s North-West University, vii) private suits for procurement corruption by Professor Abiola Makinwa of the Hague University of Applied Sciences, viii) international tribunals as a means for forcing government action on corruption by Adetokunbo Mumuni, Executive Director of the Social and Economic Rights Project,  and ix) legal responses to land grabbing in Cambodia by Bunthea Keo.  All papers are available here.

One thought on “The Obiang Trial: Lessons from a Decade-long Legal Battle

  1. Pingback: The Obiang Trial: Lessons from a Decade-long Legal Battle | Matthews' Blog

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