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Equatorial Guinea v France: What are the Limits on Prosecution of Corruption-Related Money Laundering by Foreign Officials?

Published on July 29, 2016        Author: 
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On 14 June 2016, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) announced that Equatorial Guinea had instituted proceedings against France before the Court. Equatorial Guinea’s claims arise from the French prosecution of Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, First Vice-President of Equatorial Guinea, on charges of corruption-related money laundering. This is the first time that allegations related to large-scale corruption – often dubbed as ‘kleptocracy’ or ‘grand corruption’ – engender a dispute before the ICJ. This post offers an overview of some of the legal issues that the Court may address in the course of this litigation.

Background

Mr Obiang is First Vice-President of Equatorial Guinea and the son of the country’s president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (who is, incidentally, the world’s longest-serving president, in power since 1979). At the time when the proceedings were brought, Mr Obiang was Second Vice-President in charge of defence and security, having been promoted to his current post on 22 June 2016.

The two statesmen are no strangers to controversy. Allegations of corruption have been levelled against them repeatedly (see, e.g., here and here). In 2014, Mr Obiang surrendered part of his US-based property in settlement of US v One White Crystal-Covered ‘Bad Tour’ Glove et al, an asset forfeiture case brought by the US Department of Justice that involved his collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia and real estate. A criminal investigation is reportedly underway in Spain and corruption-related human rights litigation against Equatorial Guinea is pending in the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

The French investigation against Mr Obiang arises from a criminal complaint submitted by Transparency International France and Sherpa, two anti-corruption NGOs. Their allegation is that he has pilfered the coffers of Equatorial Guinea and invested the proceeds in France. The French authorities launched an enquiry after the Cour de Cassation’s 2010 judgment that confirmed the standing of NGOs to bring criminal complaints. On 13 July 2012, France issued an international arrest warrant against Mr Obiang. As of now, the pre-trial investigation has been concluded and the investigating magistrate shall decide whether to refer the case to court. Mr Obiang’s attempt to invoke immunity in France fell through as the Cour de Cassation ruled that (1) immunity under customary international law is limited to heads of states, heads of governments, and foreign ministers, and (2) at the time of the alleged commission of the imputed offences, Mr Obiang was merely a minister of agriculture and forests.

In another twist of events, in 2011 – that is, after the Cour de Cassation’s 2010 ruling that paved way for his prosecution – Mr Obiang sold his Parisian mansion to the state of Equatorial Guinea. Equatorial Guinea asserts that the property has henceforth formed part of the premises of its embassy to France. Unimpressed by the manoeuvre, the French investigating magistrate ordered the seizure of the building in 2012.

In Equatorial Guinea’s contention, (1) the French criminal proceedings constitute an unlawful interference with its internal affairs because alleged wrongdoing would fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of Equatorial Guinea, (2) Mr Obiang is entitled to immunity from the French criminal jurisdiction, and (3) the seizure of the building is in breach of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961. Read the rest of this entry…