PARIS – France put the elusive son of Equatorial Guinea's president on trial Monday for spending and investing tens of millions of dollars in France with funds allegedly stemming from corruption, embezzlement and extortion in his country.
Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, who was named vice president of Equatorial Guinea by his father after the French judicial noose tightened around him, has claimed he has immunity from prosecution and didn't appear before the Paris court when his trial opened.
Obiang, 47, is charged with laundering a huge amount of money in France to feed a lavish lifestyle of luxury and sports cars, designer clothes, artworks of great value and high-end real estate. He faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty, according to the prosecutor's office.
Obiang's trial is the first of several cases investigated in France, involving African leaders and some of their relatives suspected of thriving on corruption money, to be brought to court.
It came after non-governmental organizations targeting corruption and other associations launched a lawsuit in France 10 years ago. Known in French media as the case of the "ill-gotten gains," the initial complaint claimed several African heads of state, including Obiang's father, the presidents of Congo, Angola, Burkina Faso and the late Gabon president Omar Bongo, concealed assets proceeding from local embezzlement in France.
According to the indictment, before becoming Equatorial Guinea's vice president in 2012, Obiang used millions of dollars in public, corporate and extortion funds to stay in sumptuous Parisian palaces and to later purchase his own mansion located close to the Arc de Triomphe on one of the French capital's most sought-after avenues.
When French investigators searched the building, they found a six-story, 101-room mansion with gym, Turkish bath, nightclub, oriental lounge, hairdressing salon, game room and faucets covered with gold leaf. They also found a dozen luxury cars parked in the building courtyard, including Bugattis, Bentleys, Ferraris, a Maserati, an Aston Martin and a Porsche, worth several millions of dollars in total.
Obiang also allegedly splashed more than 20 million dollars at an art auction and bought jewels worth more than 11 million dollars over the years.
Lawyers for Obiang have challenged the jurisdiction of French courts in the case, arguing that their client has criminal immunity as Equatorial Guinea's sitting vice president and that the Parisian building once bought by Obiang has meanwhile become the property of Equatorial Guinea and should enjoy diplomatic immunity as premises belonging to the country's embassy.
After France's highest court confirmed jurisdiction and denied immunity, Obiang's lawyers turned to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. In a provisional protective ruling, the U.N. court gave the green light for the French trial in December but ruled that France must treat the Paris mansion as Equatorial Guinea's diplomatic mission.
At Monday's opening hearing, Emmanuel Marsigny, lawyer for Obiang, asked the court to postpone the trial until after the ICJ returns a final ruling in the case, not expected for months or even years. "It would be unprecedented in France, unprecedented in the world, to try a sitting vice-president," Thierry Marembert, another of Obiang's lawyers, told the court.
Representing anti-corruption NGO Transparency International, which helped bring the case, lawyer William Bourdon accused the defendant of being "obsessed" with delaying legal proceedings and of "confusing immunity and impunity."
Prosecutor Jean-Yves Lourgouilloux asked the court to go ahead with the trial, saying there isn't "any legal obstacle" for it.
The French case is not the first time Obiang's opulent way of life has come under scrutiny. The U.S. filed claims in 2011 against Obiang's U.S.-held assets worth more than $70 million, alleging they were the proceeds of corruption. Obiang reached a deal with the U.S. in 2014 to sell a Malibu mansion, a Ferrari and a collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia to raise more than $30 million.
The case highlights the alleged corruption and mismanagement of the economy of Equatorial Guinea, rich in oil and gas, and the dramatic gap between the privileged ruling class of the central African country and much of the population, which thrives mainly on subsistence farming.
The former Spanish colony is run by Africa's longest-serving president, the father of the defendant, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.