Guest Post: The Obiang Trial Suggests Innovative Approaches To Fighting International Corruption

GAB is pleased to welcome back Frederick Davis, a lawyer in the Paris office of Debevoise & Plimpton, who contributes the following guest post:

Over the past two months, the French Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris (the principal trial court) heard evidence in the case against Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue (known as Teodorin), on charges of corruption and money laundering, among other allegations. Teodorin is the son of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the long-time – and notoriously corrupt – President of Equatorial Guinea, a resource-rich country that also has some of the most widespread poverty in the world. Yet Teodorin, who is currently Vice President , owns vast real estate in Paris, a private jet, a yacht, and a fleet of vintage and modern automobiles, among his other known assets. This case has been discussed extensively on this blog (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), but it’s useful to recap how the case came to trial in the first place:

The case against Teodorin was primarily the result of diligent efforts by NGOs, including the French anticorruption group Sherpa and the French chapter of Transparency International (TI). In 2007, Sherpa and others filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor in Paris alleging that the ruling families of Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Burkina Faso and the Republic of the Congo held assets in France that were not the fruits of their official salaries. After a brief investigation, the Public Prosecutor dismissed the claims. Several of the NGOs, joined in some instances by citizens of the countries in question, then used a French procedure known as constitution de partie civile to cause a criminal investigation by an investigating magistrate (juge d’instruction). This effort was opposed by the Public Prosecutor. A Court of Appeals initially upheld the prosecutor’s position and dismissed TI’s intervention, but in an important 2010 ruling, the French Cour de Cassation (Supreme Court) ruled that TI was a proper partie civile authorized to instigate the criminal investigation. Ultimately Teodorin was bound over for trial, now with the support of the Public Prosecutor (as well as the continued active participation of TI and other NGOs). A decision is expected in October.

The procedures that brought Obiang to trial are interesting because they highlight four important differences between French and US criminal procedures, and more generally illustrate several legal deficiencies, in countries like the United States, that often hinder the worldwide fight against transnational corruption: Continue reading

The Obiang Trial: Misstatements of Facts and Law in the Defense’s Closing Arguments

GAB is pleased to publish this account and analysis by Shirley Pouget and Ken Hurwitz of the Open Society Justice Initiative of the final arguments of Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodoro Nguema Obiang’s lawyers at his Paris trial for what is in effect kleptocracy.

court roomTeodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue’s trial concluded July 5, 2017, with closing arguments by his defense counsel. The trial marks a major milestone in the struggle to ensure accountability for grand corruption, even when committed by those at the highest political levels.  A spicy mixture of high principle, juridical gravitas, and sophisticated argumentation on intricate issues of pressing urgency in the real world, the trial also contained moments of wrenching emotion and undignified, even scandalous, claims and insinuations.

The final day was devoted to arguments by Teodorin’s lawyers: Emmanuel Marsigny, Equatoguinean jurist Sergio Tomo, and Thierry Marembert.  In sum they claimed i) that their client didn’t steal enormous sums of money from the people of Equatorial Guinea, ii) that even if he did, the theft wasn’t illegal under Equatorial Guinean law, and iii) that even if he did steal the money and it was a violation of EG law, a French court did not have the right to try him for it.  Their arguments mixed misleading and often downright false statements of the evidence with strained and fanciful interpretations of the law, all seasoned with dark suggestions that the trial was about race and politics rather than the massive theft of resources from the citizens of Equatorial Guinea.     Continue reading

The Obiang Trial: Prosecutor Seeks 3 Years Imprisonment, Large Fine, Asset Confiscation  

GAB is pleased to publish this account and analysis by Shirley Pouget and Ken Hurwitz of the Open Society Justice Initiative of the concluding arguments the civil parties and the prosecution made at the trial of Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Nguema Obiang.

The July 5th proceedings in the Obiang trial opened with the court rejecting the defense request that it be allowed to pursue its claim that the prosecution was unconstitutional.  It closed with the state prosecutor asking the court to find Teodorin guilty, sentence to him three years in prison, fine him €30 million, and confiscate all of his assets located in France.  In between the two civil parties – CORED, a coalition of Equatorial Guinean political parties, and Transparency International-France – presented their arguments in support of conviction.  Continue reading

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