The doyen of judges in the financial hub of Paris, Françoise Desset, has ordered a judicial inquiry into the luxury property bought by three African heads of state in France. She concluded that a complaint launched by Transparency International (TI) last December, was admissible. The Paris prosecutor, who announced in early April that he would oppose such a decision, has four days left to file an appeal. For TI, this victory marks an important step.
Wednesday afternoon was wrought with commotion on the premises of Sherpa in the ninth arrondissement of Paris. After a “historic” ruling by the French courts to give a green light for the opening of a judicial inquiry into the “ill-gotten gains” of three African heads of state in France, journalists are scrambling to interview lawyers and leaders of the NGO Transparency International France.
“This is a human and legal victory,” said Maud Perdriel-Vaissière, a lawyer in charge of the case at Sherpa. Tuesday, Dean of the judges, Françoise Desset ruled in favour of a complaint filed last December by Transparency International France against three Presidents, namely; Ondimba Omar Bongo of Gabon, Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo and Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, for “concealment of embezzled public funds, money laundering, misuse of corporate assets, abuse of trust and complicity.” She, however, rejected a complaint made by Gabonese taxpayer, Grégory Gbwa Mintsa, who said that the alleged embezzlement of the President of Gabon have been detrimental. “When we pay taxes it is to have access to hospitals and schools, not to allow executives to buy a Maserati,” said William Bourdon, President of Sherpa and counsel for the plaintiffs.
Françoise Desset’s ruling is expected to lead to the opening of a criminal investigation after the appointment of a magistrate. “The identification and prosecution of those who, tirelessly and surreptitiously, deplete their country’s wealth is now possible,” said Bourdon.
“The battle has only just begun”
According to the President of Sherpa and the counsel for the plaintiffs, this is the first time such proceedings are instituted against serving African Heads of State. He welcomes the ruling, but refuses to fall prey to a possible illusion. “This is a first leg victory. The battle has only just begun,” said Bourdon. Hoping to return the money from the various properties to the respective citizens, he also believes the process could take a while.
But on the diplomatic front, consequences emanating from judge’s decision would be immediate. The three heads of state are at the head of oil-producing countries, where the French oil giant, Total, is established. These leaders are also regarded as pillars of françafrique (co-operation between France and former colonies).
The French public prosecutor, which in April announced that it would oppose the opening of a judicial inquiry, from Tuesday had five days to appeal. TF is aware of this possibility. “The prosecution cannot hide what it really is; the armed arm of the state”, they say. According to TI France, the purchase of luxury properties by the three African heads could not have been achieved without conniving with the French authorities. TI does not lack evidence. However, should the case be appealed, it will once again be entrusted to the judges who will have to revisit the case before validating or rejecting the appeal.
Congo is “calm”
The first African reaction to Madam Desset’s decision came from Congo Brazzaville. On Wednesday, the government of the Central African country was “calm”, according to its spokesperson, the Minister of Communication, Alain Atipault. In a statement he said the dossier does not contain anything “concrete”. Interviewed by Patrick Maisonneuve, President Omar Bongo’s lawyer stated that “the complaint launched by Transparency International France is inadmissible, it is not entitled to represent the people of Gabon. I therefore hope that the prosecution will appeal.” He told Reuters news agency.
In total, the French police identified in 2007 during a preliminary investigation, 39 properties and 70 bank accounts belonging to Omar Bongo and his family, 24 properties and 112 bank accounts held by the family Sassou-Nguesso as well as limousines bought by the Obiang family. The judicial inquiry could see all the alleged ill-gotten assets confiscated and returned to the people of the countries concerned.