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article imageTop UN court hands mixed ruling in France vs E.Guinea row

By Charlotte VAN OUWERKERK (AFP)     Jun 6, 2018 in World

The UN's top court on Wednesday partly threw out a case brought by Equatorial Guinea against France, amid a bitter row triggered after a French court convicted the African nation's vice president of embezzlement.

In a complicated legal ruling at the International Court of Justice, judges found they lacked jurisdiction to decide whether France had broken international conventions by prosecuting Teodorin Obiang.

In the long-running, corruption case, the 48-year-old son of Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang was tried in absentia by a Paris court and given a three-year suspended sentence in October for corruption.

He was found to have embezzled 150 million euros ($180 million) to fund his lavish lifestyle, and was also given a suspended fine of 30 million euros for money laundering, corruption and abuse in the small central African state.

Malabo had contended that under the Palermo Convention, Obiang had diplomatic immunity from any prosecution.

But the ICJ judges agreed with objections raised by France that "the court lacks jurisdiction" in that matter under the UN's convention against transnational organised crime, presiding judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf said.

However, the ICJ judges agreed they could rule on whether Obiang's six-storey mansion, on the upscale Avenue Foch in Paris, was a diplomatic mission.

In 2012, French authorities seized the property, on one of the French capital's poshest streets, along with a fleet of luxury cars including two Bugatti Veyrons -- often dubbed the world's most expensive supercar -- and a Rolls-Royce Phantom.

Paris police in 2012 on the Avenue Foch in Paris searched the home of Teodorin Obiang  the son of Eq...
Paris police in 2012 on the Avenue Foch in Paris searched the home of Teodorin Obiang, the son of Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang, as part of a corruption probe.
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP

Police also carted away vanloads of valuables, including paintings, a $4.2-million clock, Michael Jackson memorabilia and fine wines worth thousands of euros per bottle.

Malabo contends the mansion in the luxury 16th arrondissement, which boasts a cinema, spa and gold-leafed covered taps, acted as its embassy in Paris, and as such was off-limits to French raids under the Vienna Convention.

- Diplomatic mission or home? -

The ICJ judges threw out a preliminary objection from France, and unanimously agreed that they could hear the dispute over the luxury house.

"The Vienna Convention provides for the regime of inviolability of buildings which have the status of diplomatic premises," said Yusuf.

And he specified that it was not just the premises but also "their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of transport of the mission, that are immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution."

France has maintained that the Avenue Foch address was never registered as the embassy by Equatorial Guinea, and was just Obiang's private home.

New hearings will likely now be organised by the court in The Hague to hear arguments over the status of 42, Avenue Foch.

President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, 75, has ruled Equatorial Guinea with an iron fist since 1979, making him the world's longest-serving president of a country awash with oil, but mired in poverty and a reputation for corruption.

He appointed his son as vice president in June 2016 -- two years after the first charges were first brought in France.

The case sets a precedent for France which has long turned a blind eye to African dictators pouring their ill-gotten gains into Parisian real estate and luxury products.

French judges have also been probing allegations of corruption against Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso, and Omar Bongo, the late president of Gabon.

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