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Equatorial Guinea president defends UNESCO prize in his name that critics call disgrace

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — The president of Equatorial Guinea has issued a rare public statement to defend a UNESCO prize bearing his name that a rights group said Tuesday was merely a way to "launder the reputation of a brutal dictator."

The $300,000 UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences has put the U.N.'s cultural agency under the spotlight, and prompted rights groups to ask the agency and its member states to scrap the award funded by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema's charity.

Obiang, also known as Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, seized power in Equatorial Guinea more than 30 years ago. The most recent human rights report from the U.S. State Department documented unlawful killings by security forces, torture, arbitrary arrests and severe restrictions on free speech and press.

Despite his country's vast oil wealth and a GDP per capita larger than that of the U.K., France or Japan, most Equatorial Guineans live in grinding poverty.

Critics have called the prize — for research aimed at "improving quality of life" — the height of hypocrisy for a country that has seen its infant mortality rise and its school enrollment decline in the past decade. The prize is scheduled to be given this year for the first time, though no firm date has been set.

Obiang has defended the prize — established in 2008 with a $3 million fund from the president's foundation — saying that the international community simply does not want to support a prize in his name.

"The opposition to this prize is not because the award is not positive, it's simply because the international community does not want to advocate on behalf of President Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea," he said in a statement Monday.

UNESCO spokeswoman Susan Williams said while the agency is aware of the criticisms, any decision to suspend the prize rests with the executive board, made up of member states, including the United States and several EU countries.

"We're concerned over criticisms of the prize," Williams said. "We've passed them onto the board, and it's up to UNESCO's member states to react."

The next meeting of the board is June 15, but Williams stressed that no decision could be made then, though the prize would be discussed.

Robert Palmer, a campaigner for the rights and anti-corruption group Global Witness, said UNESCO was passing the buck to member states because Irina Bokova, the director-general, was looking for "political cover to sideline the prize."

"We're shocked that UNESCO signed up for the prize in first place," Palmer said, speculating that diplomats with the body didn't want to cause a stir by refusing the offer from Obiang. He said he's afraid they'll sit by quietly again.

"Any country that does not stand up is going to be complicit in UNESCO's laundering the reputation of a brutal dictator," Palmer said.

Lisa Misol, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, called the controversy a test for UNESCO, where Bokova's leadership has billed as a new age of reform after the agency took heat for awarding Uzbek President Islam Karimov with a medal for contributing to cooperation between nations and preserving cultural heritage in 2006. Karimov had been ostracized by the West after a brutal suppression of a revolt in his country's east just months earlier.

Misol noted that the $3 million would find many other worthy uses inside Equatorial Guinea.

"Advancing sciences is a worthy cause but not at the expense of people who are not able to benefit from their country's oil wealth," said Misol.

The U.S. Embassy in Equatorial Guinea declined to comment.

UNESCO administers the $3 million fund and is charged with awarding the prize money each year to up to three scientists. The prize will come up for review in five years if it is not scuttled beforehand.