Paris — The playboy son of Equatorial Guinea’s leader, notorious for his extravagant taste in cars, homes and Michael Jackson memorabilia, went on trial on Monday in Paris charged with plundering his country’s coffers to fund his jetset lifestyle in France.
Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, Equatorial Guinea’s vice-president, is accused of using state money to buy a mansion on one of the swankiest avenues in Paris as well as a collection of Italian supercars and other luxury items.
His lawyers sought to have the trial adjourned, saying they needed more time to prepare his defence.
The trial is the first arising out of an investigation into the French assets of three African leaders accused of state looting.
According to France24, since 2010 French investigating magistrates have probed the source of money spent in France by Obiang, Congo-Brazzaville's President Denis Sassou Nguesso, and Omar Bongo, the late president of Gabon.
The 47-year-old Obiang is not expected to attend the trial where he has been charged with corruption, embezzlement, misuse of public funds and breach of trust.
US officials have already forced him to forfeit property bought with the proceeds of corruption, accusing him of "shamelessly" looting his country.
His house on Avenue Foch in Paris, which boasts a cinema, spa, hair salon and taps covered in gold leaf, is estimated to be worth about €107m. When French judicial officials first launched raids in Paris in 2011, they hired trucks to haul away his Bugattis, Ferraris, Rolls Royce and other cars.
The case sets a precedent for France which has long turned a blind eye to African dictators who routinely invest their ill-gotten gains in Paris real estate and luxury products. It came about after nearly a decade of lobbying by anti-corruption groups Sherpa and Transparency International.
"In the beginning, there was simply no political will in France to listen to us," William Bourdon, a lawyer for Sherpa, wrote in September.
French prosecutors allege Obiang took nearly €110m between 2004-11, when he was agriculture minister for his father, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema.
As agriculture minister, the permanent bachelor held a powerful position that gave him control over the lucrative timber industry which is Equatorial Guinea’s main export after oil.
A so-called "revolutionary" tax imposed on wood sales was transferred to his personal accounts, prosecutors allege. He had always said he earned the money legally in his country, one of his lawyers, Emmanuel Marsigny, said. Obiang fought unsuccessfully to prevent the trial.
In December, the International Court of Justice in the Hague rejected a request by Equatorial Guinea to suspend the case.
Born in 1969, Obiang was 10 when his father overthrew his bloodthirsty uncle, dictator Francisco Macias Nguema.
Now Africa’s longest-serving ruler, Teodoro Obiang Nguema made his son vice-president in June just after being re-elected with his usual score of more than 90% of votes cast.
During one of his appeals against the French trial, a lawyer acting for the French government said Obiang had a "compulsive need to buy".
In a US cable published by the WikiLeaks website in 2010, Teodorin was said to live "the life of an international playboy and is widely accused of corruption".
In a settlement with US prosecutors in 2014, Obiang agreed to turn over more than $30m in property — including a Malibu villa, a Ferrari and Michael Jackson memorabilia.
The music fan is known to have bought a crystal-covered glove worn by Michael Jackson during his "Bad" tour, which is worth hundreds of thousands of euros.
The US Justice Department said he "embarked on a corruption-fuelled spending spree in the US" after racking up $300m through embezzlement, extortion, and money laundering.
In November, Swiss prosecutors said they had opened a money laundering probe targeting Obiang and seized 11 luxury cars in Geneva, including a Bugatti Veyron worth about €2m.
As part of that investigation, his luxury 76m yacht called Ebony Shine was seized in the Netherlands in December, according to the Swiss magazine L’Hebdo. Equatorial Guinea is the continent’s third-biggest oil producer but analysts say the energy boom has benefitted only the politically connected elite. The country is also regularly criticised by human rights groups for repressive laws, unlawful killings, torture and corruption.