PARIS (AP) — After years of investigation, France on Monday put the son of the president of Equatorial Guinea on trial for corruption, charged with spending many millions in state funds — much of it allegedly in cash — to feed an opulent lifestyle of fast cars, designer clothes, works of art and high-end real estate.
But the defendant, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, in the first of several planned trials of foreign figures allegedly thriving on ill-gotten gains, was absent and his lawyers sought a postponement to better prepare their case.
Obiang, who is also Equatorial Guinea's second vice president, faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty of corruption, money laundering and embezzlement.
Obiang's lawyer, Emmanuel Marsigny, argued that he was not given a "reasonable delay" to prepare a defense for his client's actions spanning 14 years and that the trial date notification was sent to a Paris address though his client lives at the presidential palace in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea.
"It is not just an address he declared. He lives there," Marsigny told the court.
"Believe me, Mr. Nguema (Obiang) is not a big-time bandit," he said. "He just wants his rights observed."
It was not immediately clear if the court would grant a delay.
Representing Transparency International, which helped bring the case, lawyer William Bourdon accused the defense of trying to paralyze the judicial system through a series of "opportunistic" and "malicious" maneuvers.
Obiang's trial came after two non-governmental organizations targeting corruption and an association of Congolese citizens living abroad launched a lawsuit in France nearly 10 years ago against leaders in nearly a half-dozen African countries, including the late Gabon president Omar Bongo, charging they used state funds during or after their tenures to buy properties and luxury goods in France.
According to court documents, Obiang allegedly used millions of dollars in public money to stay in luxury Parisian palaces and later purchased a mansion located on one of the French capital's most sought-after avenues. The defense said the acquisition serves as Equatorial Guinea's embassy, and the International Court of Justice ruled that France must treat the Paris mansion as Equatorial Guinea's diplomatic mission — but gave the green light for the trial, despite Obiang's claims of diplomatic immunity.
Obiang allegedly bought up to 15 cars in France for 5.7 million euros (currently $6 million) and once splashed nearly 20 million euros at an arts auction.
A former majordomo, a governess and others employed by him in Paris told investigators that their boss came to France with suitcases full of cash and paid mainly in cash for luxury goods, according to the indictment.
"Teodoro Obiang is part of a small club, a small but global club of corruptors," said William Bourdon, the lawyer for Transparency International. "Their common characteristic is they will never confess. Never. Have you ever heard of a global corruptor turn to his people, a hand over the heart, and tell them: 'I am sorry, I apologize'? No ... He's been using all possible legal tools to invalidate the trial."
The case highlights the well-known corruption and mismanagement of the economy of Equatorial Guinea, rich in oil and gas, and the dramatic gap between the privileged ruling class of the central African country and much of the population, which thrives mainly on subsistence farming.
The former Spanish colony is run by Africa's longest-serving president, the father of the defendant, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.
Exiled opposition leaders were among those present at the Paris trial, including the president of the Progress Party, Severo Moto, who lives in Madrid. He claimed before the trial that Obiang was not present "because he is afraid."
"The country knows very well that he's a thief," he said.
Obiang's lawyer passionately contends that his client's hands are clean.
"What Mr. NGuema (Obiang) did in his country was perfectly legal," he said, claiming that only in France would such a trial take place.
However, Swiss authorities opened a preliminary investigation last year, and the U.S. filed claims in 2011 against Obiang's U.S.-held assets worth more than $70 million, alleging they were the proceeds of corruption. Obiang reach a deal with the U.S. in 2014 to sell a Malibu mansion, a Ferrari and a collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia to raise more than $30 million.