Paris judge to examine African leaders' finances

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The Independent Online

A senior judge in Paris is about to cause the French government serious embarrassment with an investigation into the allegedly stolen wealth of three African presidents who are closely allied to France.

Two previous complaints by an anti-corruption group have been buried under pressure by the French authorities. But the most senior investigating magistrate in Paris, Françoise Desset, has now agreed to investigate the portfolios – from chateâux to Ferraris to multiple bank accounts – owned by the ruling families of Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Congo-Brazzaville.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is close to one of the three accused African leaders, Omar Bongo of Gabon, must decide in the next few days whether to order an appeal against the decision.

The investigation, which could last for many months, follows a formal complaint by a French open government pressure group, Transparence International. Daniel Lèbegue, the organisation's president, said the ruling

by Judge Desset was a "historic decision, which could mean the end of the impunity for corrupt leaders around the globe".

"This is the first time, anywhere in the world, that a judge has recognised the right of a non-governmental organisation to bring a law suit in the names of victims of corruption," he said.

The NGO's legal complaint claims that the three families' wealth "could only have been assembled through the embezzlement of public money". The organisation's lawyer, William Bourdon, said: "Each luxury apartment bought by President Bongo's clan is a public hospital less in Libreville."

Two previous law suits brought by Transparence International were blocked after pressure by the French public prosecutor's office, which is under government control. Judge Desset decided this week that there was a possible case.

According to information leaked to the French newspaper Libération, President Bongo – the longest serving leader in sub-Saharan Africa – has property in France worth tens of millions of euros. He and his family are thought to have 70 different bank accounts, several chateaux and 11 houses and apartments in and around Paris.

They also have a family compound in Nice, extending to three houses, two apartments and a swimming pool. The Bongo family car fleet is said to include two Ferraris and five Mercedes.

The family of President Sassou-Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville – one of the poorest countries in the world – is estimated by French police to have 11 bank accounts, 13 luxury cars and nine properties in the Paris area. President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea is reported to have a more modest portfolio of a private jet, two luxury cars and a $35m villa in Malibu, California.

M. Bourdon predicted that the state prosecution service would appeal against the judge's decision. "I fear that it will become obvious that the prosecution service is the tool of raison d'etat in France," he said.

If the investigation does go ahead, it could lead to a prosecution of the African leaders but this would be unlikely to succeed without state backing. Transparence International's main objective seems to be to embarrass the three presidents – something that it has already achieved.

President Sassou-Nguesso has dismissed the legal moves against him as an "echo of neo-colonialism". In 2007, he said: "Every leader in the world has chateaux and palaces in France, whether they are from the Gulf, from Europe or from Africa."

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