UNESCO delays awarding contested prize named after president of Equatorial Guinea

PARIS (AP) — The United Nations' arm for education, science and culture decided Tuesday to delay awarding a prize that had outraged critics because it was named for Equatorial Guinea's longtime dictator.

Human rights groups have complained that the UNESCO life sciences award is merely a way to burnish the reputation of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who is accused of draining his nation's oil wealth to enrich family and friends while his people suffer in slums.

UNESCO's executive board agreed to continue consultations "with all concerned parties" on the future of the $300,000 (euro243,000) UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences, UNESCO said. The award is funded by Obiang's foundation.

"I have heard the voices of the many intellectuals, scientists, journalists and of course governments and parliamentarians who have appealed to me to protect and preserve the prestige of the organization," UNESCO's director general, Irina Bokova, told the board, urging it to delay awarding the award.

"I have come to you with a strong message of alarm and anxiety," Bokova said, adding that she believed "we must be courageous and recognize our responsibilities, for it is our organization that is at stake."

Bokova said the issue would be addressed in October at the next session of the executive board of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The prize had been scheduled to be given this year for the first time, though a date had not been set.

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.

Obiang has defended the prize, saying that the international community simply does not want to support a prize in his name.

Activists have also raised questions about the provenance of the money. A French investigation has turned up numerous French assets linked to Obiang that rights groups say were paid for with funds stolen from government coffers.