French court opens way to probe of African assets


France’s highest court reopened the way for a legal investigation into tens of millions of euros worth of assets held in the country by three African presidents or their families.

The ruling means an inquiry can now look into dozens of bank accounts, luxury properties and cars — including Bugattis, Ferraris and a Rolls Royce — that a police probe in 2007 found were among assets held in France by the presidential families of Gabon, Congo-Republic and Equatorial Guinea.

It overrules an earlier rejection by a Paris appeals court of a case brought by independent anti-graft group Transparency International (TA) into the source of the assets. TA alleged that the assets were acquired with embezzled public funds.

William Bourdon, a lawyer for the group, welcomed the decision and said it cleared the way for the inquiry to restart the investigation where it had ended, Reuters reports.
“We’re now going to have to trace the origins of the financing … That won’t be very complicated,” he told Reuters television. “But at a technical level, there is no reason why there couldn’t one day be a big trial of the heads of state, of their families and of their accomplices.”

At the time of the 2007 inquiry, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea and Omar Bongo, Gabon’s then-president and the father of President Ali Ben Bongo, had denied any wrongdoing.

The case has threatened to strain French diplomatic and business relations with Gabon and Congo, two former French colonies, and with Equatorial Guinea, a growing oil exporter.

A lawyer representing Equatorial Guinea said the decision unfairly targeted African states and accused the financial backers of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) of having an interest in reopening the case.
“Why these countries? Why these heads of state? Because there are French influences. Why? Because the NGOs are financed — one must say it — by Anglo-Saxon funds, or at least for the most part,” Isabelle Thomas Werner told Reuters.
“As far as President Obiang is concerned, there is nothing … only one miserable villa in Ville d’Avray (west of Paris) that was bought in 1986 when there wasn’t the rush for crude oil in Equatorial Guinea,” she added.