France to probe African leaders on corruption allegations
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Anti-corruption activists have hailed the decision by a French magistrate to investigate three African heads of state accused of plundering state coffers to go on lavish spending sprees in Paris and the French Riviera.
A French judge has decided to investigate three African presidents in response to a lawsuit filed against the presidents of Gabon, Congo Republic and Equatorial Guinea, who are each accused of buying luxurious homes with state funds.
"(This is) a historic decision that announces the end of impunity for corrupt leaders in the world," said Daniel Lebegue, the head of the French branch of corruption watchdog Transparency International, one of the organizations which filed the lawsuit along with Sherpa, a French non-governmental organisation.
The group filed its lawsuit last December against Presidents Omar Bongo Ondimba of Gabon, Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo and Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea.
The leaders stand accused of embezzlement, misuse of public funds and money-laundering in relation to "the acquisition of very substantial property and assets in France," said Sherpa member William Bourdon, a lawyer.
According to Transparency International, the properties of the three African presidents are worth 160 million euros. Bongo and his relatives allegedly own about 30 luxurious estates on the French Riviera, in Paris and its suburbs.
All leaders have denied any wrongdoing.
“Omar Bongo is the president of the Republic of Gabon, and nowadays, the French justice system does not allow legal proceedings against heads of states,” said Bongo's lawyer Patrick Maisonneuve in an interview with FRANCE 24.
“Obviously, Gabon will cooperate with the French justice – there is nothing to hide,” he added.
A legal first
This was the first time Transparency International had been accepted as a plaintiff in such a case and Lebegue said the move was a "considerable breakthrough in international law" that would encourage activists in other countries.
Two previous suits, in 2007 and 2008, had been dismissed by the Paris prosecutor on grounds that the group could not present itself as a plaintiff in this case. However Francoise Dresset, a magistrate who heads the financial centre of the Paris court, allowed the case to proceed.
In 2007, a police investigation revealed that the three African presidents owned numerous properties and bank accounts in France. Sassou-Nguesso, who returned to power in 1997, and his children own 24 estates and 112 bank accounts in France, according to French weekly Challenges.
Sassou-Nguesso’s lawyer Jean-Pierre Versini told FRANCE 24 he thought Dresset’s decision was “surprising” and added he did not understand why African leaders were being targeted. “There’s something suspect, neocolonialist in this case,” he said.
The Paris prosecution office, under the authority of France's ministry of justice, now has five days to appeal against Dresset’s decision, a move which could block proceedings for months potentially for good.
On April 20, the prosecution office had opposed the launch of an investigation into the African leaders’ real estate.
In an interview with FRANCE 24, the plaintiff's lawyer Bourdon said he hoped French justice would go ahead with the investigation. “Resistance to uncovering the truth on embezzlement, on a large scale, is completely obsolete,” he said.
Impact on France’s relations with former colonies
Since 2008, proceedings against African leaders have aggravated relations between France and oil-rich Gabon, which has criticised the “determination of the French media” against it, according to the AFP. The ruling Gabonese party warned in March that it would reexamine cooperation agreements between France and Gabon.
French group Total is the leading oil producer in Gabon and Congo Republic and many other French firms, public and private, have contracts in the two former colonies.
According to Lebegue, Transparency International regularly informs French authorities on its legal proceeding because of their “possible impact” on relations between France, Gabon and Congo Republic. “[French authorities] don’t try to encourage or dissuade us,” he said.
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