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UN suspends contested prize for African president

The U.N.'s cultural and education agency on Thursday suspended plans to grant a prize named after Equatorial Guinea's longtime dictator, after human rights groups slammed the award by citing the leader's poor human rights record.

UNESCO said in a statement that the 58 members of its executive board agreed to suspend the $300,000

UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences.

The Paris-based body said it would continue consultations on the future of the prize.

Rights groups welcomed the suspension Thursday.

"A dictator who has impoverished his citizens and enriched himself and his family by plundering the country's oil wealth has no place sponsoring a UN prize," said Simon Taylor, director of Global Witness.

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, despite its massive oil wealth. The prize was scheduled to be given this year for the first time.

President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has defended the prize — established in 2008 with a $3 million fund — saying that the international community simply does not want to support a prize in his name.

Obiang has been accused of rights violations including unlawful killings, torture, and arbitrary arrests. He denies the allegations.

Earlier this month, 125 African scholars and human rights activists sent a letter to UNESCO calling for the prize's abolition. Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, author Chinua Achebe and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka were among those whose signatures were included in the letter.

Some rights groups also urged UNESCO to abandon the prize entirely.

"President Obiang has presided over an abysmal record of abuses and mismanagement in Equatorial Guinea for over 30 years," said Arvind Ganesan, business and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. "UNESCO should take the opportunity to create safeguards to avoid cause for embarrassment in the future and should go ahead and cancel the Obiang prize completely."

Obiang seized power in a 1979 coup. He has swept several elections since, winning by 97.1 percent in a 2002 poll widely criticized as fraudulent. Last year, Obiang was declared the winner with 95.37 percent of the votes in an election opponents and international human rights groups denounced as a fraud.