French judge opens case into African leaders

A French magistrate has opened a preliminary investigation to see whether the leaders of three oil producing African countries with close ties to France “embezzled public funds”.
A senior Paris financial magistrate yesterday made the decision despite the opposition of the public prosecutor which said the complaint by anti-corruption activists against the leaders of Gabon, Congo Republic and Equatorial Guinea was inadmissible.
The prosecutor will decide within five days whether to launch an appeal to try and prevent the case being opened, Reuters adds.
The French arm of Transparency International and a Gabonese citizen want the justice system to look into how the leaders of Gabon, Congo Republic and Equatorial Guinea and their families could afford to acquire assets worth tens of millions of euros in France, alleging embezzlement.
The judge did not accept the case brought by the citizen, Gregory Ngbwa Mintsa.
The evidence is a thick 2007 police file, listing dozens of bank accounts, properties in rich districts of Paris and on the Riviera, and a collection of Bugattis, Ferraris, Maybachs, Maseratis and a Rolls-Royce Phantom.
The presidents, Omar Bongo of Gabon (pictured), Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, all deny the accusations.
Bongo and Sassou-Nguesso have both enjoyed close ties with successive French rulers and backing from Paris at testing moments of their careers.
All three countries are oil and gas exporters. Gabon and Congo Republic are former French colonies where Total is the leading energy producer and many other French firms, public and private, have long-term contracts.
A case would set a precedent for anti-corruption campaigners across the world to tackle sitting presidents.
A red light would raise suspicions that some African rulers are protected because of French interests in their countries, despite President Nicolas Sarkozy’s vows to break with the past.
A preliminary investigation is a tool used to establish whether there may be a case to answer under criminal law. It can lead either to further investigation or to no further action.