The Trial of Suspected Kleptocrat Teodorin Obiang: Report on Day One

GAB is pleased to publish this account of the first day of the Obiang trial by Shirley Pouget, a French lawyer observing the proceedings on behalf of the Open Society Justice Initiative

The worldwide fight against grand corruption took a giant stride forward Monday June 19 with First Vice President of Equatorial Guinea Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue standing trial for corruptly diverting millions from the national treasury.  Known to cronies as Teodorin, the case appears to be the first ever where a high-level official, while in office, is called to account for grand corruption before a foreign court. The precedent setting case, the culmination of a decade of determined struggle by French and Equatorial Guinean civil society, is being heard before the Tribunal Correctionnel in Paris.

As the trial opened, the courtroom overflowed with journalists, civil society representatives, and Equatorial Guineans in exile: we were all there to see if indeed a powerful politician whose corrupt activities have left his nation in penury would be held to account.  The three judges hearing the case, all women, took their seats at 1:30. The presiding judge opened by recalling that the accused was before the court on charges of misappropriation of public funds, complicity in the misappropriation of public funds, misuse of corporate assets, complicity in the misuse of corporate assets, and the concealment of each of these offences.  She explained that the court had jurisdiction because each offense, or an element of each, was committed in France.  She then expressed concern that defense counsel had only provided answers to the charges a few days before the trial began.

The defense launched into a series of objections to the commencement of the trial that consumed the entire afternoon hearing.  Teodorin’s high-priced lawyers argued that 1) the case should be stayed pending a final decision by the International Court of Justice in a case between France and Equatorial Guinea, 2) the magistrates’ decision to refer the accused for trial was illegal, and 3) a coalition of Equatorial Guineans should not be permitted to participate in the case as a civil party.  They also raised an unexpected claim based on a highly technical reading of the charging document.    Continue reading

At Last: A Kleptocrat Faces Justice

This Monday, June 19, a case against Equatorial Guinean First Vice President Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue for looting the nation’s oil wealth opens in a Parisian criminal court. In partnership with the Open Society Foundations Justice Initiative, GAB will provide readers with regular reports on the case’s progress.  Although the Vice President is unlikely to appear in person, the case nonetheless is an important milestone in the world wide struggle to bring to justice rulers who rob their citizens on a massive scale.  It marks the first time, to GAB’s knowledge, a sitting kleptocrat has been called to account.

The case, one of several collectively known as “bien mal acquis” or “ill-gotten goods,” has gone through several twists and turns.  It is a tribute to the hard work, persistence, and dedication of CCFD-Terre Solidaire, Sherpa, TI-France and other individuals and NGOs that it is now finally set for trial.  Vice President Obiang could be sentenced to up to 10 years’ in prison and fined millions of euros if convicted.  While he would surely remain holed up in Equatorial Guinea to duck prison, conviction would likely carry an order confiscating all property he owns located in France, which today is known to include a Parisian mansion valued at 107 million euros along with a collection of Ferraris, Maseratis, and other luxury cars like worth over five million eruos.

The French case is not Obiang’s first brush with the law.  In October 2014, to settle a U.S. case based on his kleptocratic ways, he forfeited a mansion in California and other property worth $30 million.  Obiang is also under investigation in a number of other jurisdictions.

Monday’s hearing begins at 1:30, Paris time.  For those fortunate enough to be in Paris, additional hearings are scheduled for 9:00 am, June 21; 1:30, June 22; 1:30 pm, June 26; 1:30, June 28; 9:00, June 29; 1:30, July 3; 9:00 July 5; and 1:30 July 6.  For those who are not, GAB is the next best alternative.

Guest Post: Settlements in Asset Recovery Cases—Neither Ethical Nor Effective

Robert Packer, a Masters student at of the University of Nanterre, Paris, contributes the following guest post:

When governments attempt to freeze, seize, and repatriate the assets stolen by corrupt government officials and others, they often confront what is sometimes presented as a conflict between pragmatism and principles. Given that kleptocrats can often hire the best lawyers and take advantage of every legal protection available, attempting to secure convictions and/or confiscation of all ill-gotten assets may be an expensive, time-consuming, and uncertain prospect. As such, across multiple jurisdictions, cases like the Giffen Affair (Kazakhstan) and the Abacha Affair (Nigeria) have ended up with kleptocrats forfeiting a part of their assets and accepting a slap on the wrist—what Mohammed Moussa, in his post last April , referred to as a “golden handshake.” Proponents of such settlements argue that it’s preferable to secure the restitution of a part of the stolen assets rather than risk a long and expensive process resulting in nothing. Those taking this view assert that settlements are better for the victims, and point to the failed case against the Moi regime in Kenya as an example of the risks of pursuing an uncompromising approach. And there’s a certain logic to that view. Asset recovery practitioners and proponents might well ask ourselves, who are we to push for a conviction or for forfeiture of all illicit assets for the sake of some high vaunted principles (if not our own egos!) if this means that the poor (almost always the victims of corruption) are left with nothing?

That pro-settlement view may sound plausible, high-minded, and sophisticated. But it’s wrong. And no case better illustrates this than the Obiang affair, which is currently at various stages of development in France, the US, and Spain. That case nicely illustrates the serious problems with negotiating “golden handshake” settlements with kleptocrats and their cronies, rather than pushing to do full justice. Continue reading

Policing Private Parties: How to Get Kleptocrats’ Seized Assets to their Citizens

As Rick has pointed out, it is exciting to see the successful forfeiture of U.S.-based assets owned by sitting Vice President of Equatorial Guinea, kleptocrat and international playboy Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue (“Obiang”). The Department of Justice estimates that the assets are worth an estimated $30 million. Also encouraging is the fact that the bulk of the settlement funds will be returned to the people of Equatorial Guinea. This is the first case in which the assets of a current leader’s cronies will be seized and repatriated to the country of origin by the U.S. Disbursing millions of dollars transparently in country that ranks 163/177 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index will be challenging.

In stolen asset repatriation cases, the debate over disbursement typically boils down to whether to channel reclaimed cash through the government or through private actors. In Equatorial Guinea, returning the money directly to the government is a non-starter: the Obiang family has an extensive record of human rights and corruption abuses and a tight grip on power. The DOJ settlement accordingly cuts the government and its henchmen out of the forfeiture proceeds and channels repatriated funds through a private charity. But simply relying on private actors will not eliminate corruption challenges; there are pitfalls in channeling aid through private NGOs as well.

The DOJ should keep the following risks in mind as works out a disbursement plan for the Obiang settlement funds: Continue reading

U.S. Department of Justice/Civil Society — 1; Kleptocrats — 0

October 10, 2014, deserves mention in any future history of the anticorruption movement, for it was on this date that a ruling kleptocratic family (colloquially known as thugs in power) conceded the obvious: that the money to fund a kleptocratic lifestyle — in this case a mansion in Malibu, a Ferrari 599 GTO, and Michael Jackson memorabilia – did not come from the family’s hard work on behalf of the citizens they rule.  Rather, it came the easy way: from the wholesale theft of the nation’s patrimony.

This startling, if obvious, concession came in the settlement of a civil suit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, with the support and encouragement of civil society, against an unlikely group of defendants.  In the order listed in the complaint, they are: 1) One White Crystal Covered Bad Tour Glove and Other Michael Jackson Memorabilia, 2) One Gulfstream G-V Jet Airplane Displaying Tail Number VPCES, 3) Real Property Located on Sweetwater Mesa Road In Malibu California, 4) One 2007 Bentley Azure, 5) One 2008 Bugatti Veyron, 6) One 2008 Lamborghini Murcielago, 7) One 2008 Rolls Royce Drophead Coupe, 8) One 2009 Rolls Royce Drophead Coupe, 9) 2009 Rolls Royce Phantom Coupe, and 10) the Ferrari 599 GTO.

Although defendants stood mute before the court, their owner, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, Second Vice President of Equatorial Guinea and (surprise?) son of the country’s president, was anything but.  Through the mouths of expensive American legal talent he complained loudly and bitterly that the ten named defendants were innocent.  But in settling the case, he agreed in effect that three – the mansion, the Ferrari, and some of the Michael Jackson memorabilia, were indeed guilty.  Guilty? Of what? Continue reading

Don’t Give Back that Glove General Holder!

Although few readers likely can find Equatorial Guinea on a map (hint: it’s that small square wedged between Cameroon and Gabon), many have heard its name in connection with the annual contest to identify the “most corrupt country.” For despite the always stiff competition from the likes of such states as Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, year-in-year-out Equatorial Guinea always manages to place at or near the top.  Observers attribute its perennially strong showing to a combination of two factors: 1) the country’s vast mineral wealth and 2) its rulers’ skill and ruthlessness in keeping it all for themselves. Continue reading