Landmark French rulings dismiss Teodorin Nguema Obiang defamation cases

23 July 2014, by Maud Perdriel-Vaissiere.

For those of you who have been kept busy with the World Cup in Brazil, you may have missed another important match!

The match in question took place in a small Paris courtroom (le tribunal correctionnel de Paris) and pitted Teodorin Nguema Obiang (TNO – also known as the playboy), the son of the president of the resource-rich West African Equatorial Guinea, against Daniel Lebègue, the president of Transparency International France (TI France).

The issue at stake: Did Mr Lebègue commit defamation by stating during a press interview[1] that TNO was enjoying a luxury lifestyle in Paris at the expense of Equatoguinean people (suggesting that he was diverting public money)?

Lebègue’s claims were made in 2012 in relation to a judicial investigation, run since December 2010 by two French magistrates into allegations of money laundering targeting various West African Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs), including TNO. Prompted by a criminal complaint filed by French anti-corruption groups SHERPA and TI France, that case, known in France as the “Biens Mal Acquis” case (literally “ill-gotten gains”), aims to determine if public and/or illicit money has been involved in the accumulation of massive wealth in France by foreign political figures.

And, the fact is that TNO has been the key target of the investigation so far:

  • In September 2011, French police seized a dozen of his “supercars” including two Bugatti Veyrons, a Maserati MC12, a Porsche Carrera GT, a Ferrari Enzo and a Ferrari 599 GTO. Pictures of the cars and video of the seizure can be found here.
  • In February 2012, French authorities searched TNO’s luxurious Avenue Foch mansion. The raid lasted nearly 15 days and the police are reported to have seized three truckloads (200m3) of valuable artwork and antiquities; believed to have been illegally acquired. Details are available here. The property itself was seized in July the same year.
  • In March 2014, the two French investigating magistrates in charge of the case issued an indictment against TNO charging him with money laundering. TNO denies any wrongdoing[2].

TNO’s extravagant lifestyle has also caught the attention of the US authorities. In 2011, the US government filed civil forfeiture complaints with a view to confiscating around US$70 million in assets belonging to TNO (including the now famous US$30 million palace in Malibu), which the government alleges are the proceeds of foreign corruption offenses and were laundered in the United States (more information can be found here). The case is currently underway.

This is the context of the comments made by Daniel Lebègue.

In a decision rendered on 26 June 2014, Paris judges acquitted Daniel Lebègue of defamation charges considering that the statement was made in good faith. This means that, in light of the above-mentioned ongoing proceedings against TNO and his assets (referenced during the court hearing), Daniel Lebègue could reasonably believe the statement he made to be true.[3]

This ruling – which is final since TNO did not appeal against it – is welcome and echoes two other decisions rendered recently in defamation cases brought in France by the Obiang family. One of those decisions, rendered on 4 July 2014, acquitted the author of an article that exposed TNO’s lifestyle published in the weekly news magazine L’Express.[4]

Another defamation suit was filed by another member of the Obiang family (the father this time) against the French civil society organization Catholic Committee Against Hunger (CCFD) in connection with the publication of a report that claimed he had amassed a fortune by plundering Equatorial Guinea’s income from natural resources. The court also rejected the defamation suit on “good faith” grounds and this was upheld last year on appeal.[5]

Clearly freedom of speech is not absolute. However, it should not be restricted in a way that prevents civil society from releasing information about matters that are in the public interest. It is to be hoped that these decisions point to a growing momentum for change contributing to a reduction in the number of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) that have been filed against civil society recently in relation to public debate on important topics.

About Maud Perdriel Vaissiere

Maud Perdriel Vaissiere is the UNCAC Coalition Advisor on Asset Recovery.

  1. The defamation case was in relation to a statement made by Lebègue in Le Parisien on 16 February 2012
  2. France puts Equatorial Guinea leader’s son under formal investigation
  3. Note that judges also acquitted the chief editor of the newspaper that published the interview considering that the publication was made in good faith. Source: Teodorin Obiang perd son procès en diffamation
  4. Equatorial Guinea leader’s son Obiang loses legal case against French magazine
  5. Guinea’s Obiang loses libel case against French NGO