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.  Continue reading

Day Six of the Trial of Teodorin Obiang

GAB is pleased to publish this account and analysis of the 6th day of the trial of Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Nguema Obiang by Shirley Pouget and Ken Hurwitz of the Open Society Justice.

On day six of his trial for actions arising from theft of public monies, Teodorin’s lawyers offered several legal defenses.  The most bizarre, and the one most strenuously advanced, was that in Equatorial Guinea theft of public funds is not a crime if the thief is a senior government official.  Teodorin was a government minister at the time he stole the money, and according to his lawyers, there was no law in Equatorial Guinea that made it a crime for a minister to steal public funds.

The defense also tried to lob a procedural bombshell into the proceedings.  It claimed that the way French courts have interpretred bribery as a predicate offense for money laundering is unconstitutional.  This constitutional objection, a Question Prioritaire de Constitutionalite, could have been lodged early in the proceeding.  Raising it so late in the case, would, if the court accepted the defense request, postpone the trial proceedings for many months. 

Continue reading

Day Four of the Trial of Teodorin Obiang

GAB is pleased to publish this account of the 4th day of the trial of Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Nguema Obiang by Shirley Pouget of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

Monday, June 26, was the fourth day of trial of Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Obiang on charges amounting to kleptocracy.  After three days of skirmishing about procedural issues, the court finally heard testimony in support of the charges.

court room *Roberto Berardi, who had been in business with Teodorin, told the court that after confronting Teodorin about allegations of corruption leveled by the U.S. Department of Justice he was jailed and held in solitary confinement for almost three years.  The reason, he believes, was to prevent him from talking to U.S. authorities.

*Delfin Mocache Massoko, whose on-line news site Diaro Rombe chronicles the Obiang family’s business dealings, told the court that he and many of his sources had been told “they will pay” for exposing the Obiang’s corruption to the world.

* Tutu Alicante León, an Equatorial Guinean exile who runs EG Justice, detailed the brutality and repression Equatorial Guineans face and deprivation and extremen poverty they live in thanks to the Obiangs’ crimes.  At the court’s request he explained how any assets the court ordered seized from Teodorin could be returned to the country in ways that would benefit its citizens.

* Pedro German Tomo, another Equatorial Guinean exile, testified that when Teodorin was Minister of Agriculture and Forestry he forced logging companies to pay 10,000 francs per square meter of board logged to a company Teodorin controlled and later, when Teodorin took responsibility for infrastructure, any company winning a construction contract had to pay a 10 percent commission to the same company.

* Daniel Lebegue of Transparency International France explained to the court why his organization felt it had no choice but to bring this case against Teodorin.  He said TI-France had consulted extensively with TI chapters in Senegal, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Namibia, Kenya and Tanzania before lodging the complaint: “we wanted to go hand in hand with our colleagues from the African Chapters and be sure that our action was right.”

What follows is an account of each witness’ testimony.  No recording or transcript of the proceedings was made.  To GAB’s knowledge, Mme. Pouget’s account of the witnesses’ testimony will therefore serve as the only record.  Anyone who believes there is an error, or who wishes to provide additional context, is urged to post a comment below.    Continue reading

Day Three of the Trial of Teodorin Obiang

GAB is pleased to publish this account of the 3rd day of the trial of Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Nguema Obiang by Shirley Pouget and Ken Hurwitz of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

court room

Much of the third day of Teodorin’s trial was taken up with a lengthy, and highly misleading, “explanation” by defense counsel of United States of America v. One White Crystal-Covered “Bad Tour” Glove And Other Michael Jackson Memorabilia, a civil forfeiture action the US Department of Justice filed and later settled that involved property Teodorin owned in California.  The Paris hearing began at 1:30 pm, Wednesday, June 22, with the three judges filing into the august Chambre des Crieés of the Tribunal Correctionnel of Paris.  The Presiding Judge asked the civil parties and the defense counsel to comment on the background to the case she had reviewed the preceding day.  While the civil parties’ counsel had little to say, the defense had much to say — little of which was accurate. Continue reading

Day Two of the Trial of Teodorin Obiang

GAB is pleased to publish this account of the 2nd day of the trial of Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Obiang by Shirley Pouget and Ken Hurwitz of the Open Society Justice Initiative

The defense suffered several significant setbacks at the second day of Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Nguema Obiang’s trial for theft of public funds, money laundering, and other charges that together amount to kleptocracy.  As GAB earlier reported, Obiang’s lawyers sought to delay the case on procedural grounds and to block Equatorial Guinean citizens from, as French law permits, participating in the prosecution.  The court refused both requests.

Even worse for the VP, the court displayed a detailed command of the allegations against him along with a determination to see they are presented at trial. Accusations that have appeared in the media, civil society publications, or elsewhere will now be tested in a formal, judicial proceeding.  A finding that they are true, that Obiang did indeed rob the citizens of Equatorial Guinea blind, cannot do anything but embolden courts elsewhere to pursue similar cases while confirming to the world the regime’s pariah status. Continue reading

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

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