Equatorial Guinea Loses Challenge to Seizure of French Mansion

Presiding Judge Abdulqawi Yusuf is seen at the International Court of Justice on Friday as the court delivers a ruling in a property dispute between France and Equatorial Guinea. (UN Photo/ICJ-CIJ/Frank van Beek)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — A swanky Parisian mansion was not a diplomatic residence for Equatorial Guinea and France had a right to seize it, the United Nations’ high court ruled Friday.

The International Court of Justice found that France did not violate the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations when it raided the 101-room building belonging to Equatorial Guinea, complete with a spa, disco and movie theater.

“The court notes that during the period in question France consistently expressed its objection to the inclusion of [the building] in the diplomatic mission,” said Presiding Judge Abdulqawi Yusuf, reading the decision out loud in an empty courtroom. Representatives from France and Equatorial Guinea participated in the hearing remotely due to Covid-19 restrictions. 

In 2012, under pressure from anti-corruption nongovernmental organizations Sherpa and Transparency International, French police opened an investigation into Equatorial Guinea’s flamboyant vice president, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue. The son of the current president, Obiang amassed thousands of followers on Instagram for posting pictures of his lavish lifestyle.

As part of the investigation, police raided the mansion located in Paris’ most expensive neighborhood, confiscating 11 luxury cars, five artworks by French sculptor Auguste Rodin and bottles of Château Pétrus, one of the world’s most expensive wines, among other items. Equatorial Guinea claimed it as a diplomatic residence but France maintains it was a private home.

“France did not consider the building as forming part of the premises of Equatorial Guinea’s diplomatic mission in France,” Judge Yusuf said.

A country cannot unilaterally declare a building to be diplomatic premises and instead must apply for the designation with the host country. 

During hearings in February, Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country argued that Obiang was shielded from prosecution under the 1961 Vienna Convention.

“France insists in not respecting a sovereign and fully independent state,” Carmelo Nvono-Nca, Equatorial Guinea’s ambassador to the Netherlands, told The Hague-based court

But French lawyers argued that the treaty on diplomatic relations does not force a host country to recognize any building at any moment as a diplomatic one.

“It is a Swiss company and not Equatorial Guinea which owns the building,” Pierre Bodeau-Livinex, professor of international law at Paris Nanterre University, argued on behalf of France.

The 16-judge-panel found that France had not been arbitrary or discriminatory in its objection to granting the building diplomatic status. Equatorial Guinea’s embassy in Paris operated without problems during the investigation.  

Obiang was tried in absentia in Paris for allegedly embezzling public funds. He was given a three-year suspended sentence and fined $32 million in 2017. A French court upheld the sentence on appeal earlier this year. Obiang is currently residing in Equatorial Guinea.

Equatorial Guinea brought the case to the International Court of Justice in an effort to block the prosecution. The court found in 2016 that it had jurisdiction to hear arguments over the property but lacked jurisdiction to assess Obiang’s diplomatic status.

Friday’s ruling is final and cannot be appealed.

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