February 19, 2018 / 3:58 PM / a year ago

France assails Equatorial Guinea claim of immunity of Obiang's son in graft case

THE HAGUE (Reuters) - France asked the World Court on Monday to throw out a case launched by Equatorial Guinea, saying the African country was wrongly using the court to shield the son of its ruler from prosecution in France following a corruption investigation.

The case before the United Nation’s highest court, formally known as the International Court of Justice, is seen as an important test of the limits of diplomatic immunity.

Equatorial Guinea launched the case in 2016 after France raided the Paris residence of Teodorin Obiang as part of a corruption investigation that eventually resulted in his conviction for embezzlement in October 2017.

Equatorial Guinea argued that Obiang was the country’s “Second Vice-President” when the 2012 raid took place and that his Paris residence therefore was part of its diplomatic mission.

The French “criminal proceedings against the Second Vice-President constitute a violation of the immunity to which he is entitled under international law,” it said in its complaint, invoking the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

But at the start of jurisdictional hearings on Monday, France argued that Guinea only sought to add the residence to its diplomatic residence after the raid had taken place.

France’s representative Alain Pellet told the court to disregard the “wholly unbelievable circumstances under which the apartment on Avenue Foch suddenly became a part of the embassy.”

“How ever many positions ... he holds, Mr. Obiang is no diplomat,” Pellet said.

Equatorial Guinea is due to respond on Tuesday.

A French court found Obiang guilty of embezzlement in October during a trial in absentia and ordered the confiscation of more than 100 million euros worth of his assets.

The residence at the centre of the Guinean dispute is a luxury residence on Avenue Foch in Paris — a grand, sweeping road near the Arc de Triomphe often favoured by wealthy African expatriates and politicians.

The property, bought for 25 million euros in 2005, had 101 rooms, a gym, hair-dressing studio and disco with cinema screen.

Pellet said French investigators found 18 luxury cars on the premises when they searched it the first time.

Obiang is the son of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has ruled the former Spanish colony for more than three decades. Rights groups have labelled his administration as one of the world’s most corrupt.

If judges decide the international court has jurisdiction, then they would then move to hear Equatorial Guinea’s claim on its merits, a process likely to take more than a year.

Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg, Editing by William Maclean

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