France Defends Seizure of Mansion Tied to Equatorial Guinea

The International Court of Justice, at the Peace Palace in The Hague, began a series of hearings Monday in a case between Equatorial Guinea and France. (UN Photo/ICJ-CIJ/Frank van Beek via CNS)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) – France and Equatorial Guinea wrapped up a week of hearings Friday at the United Nations’ highest court in a dispute over a Parisian mansion that the tiny central African country called its embassy.

“If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell,” said Alain Pellet, emeritus professor of international law at Paris Nanterre University, who was quoting poet Carl Sandburg in characterizing Equatorial Guinea’s arguments before the International Court of Justice.

The case dates back to 2012, when the French police, under pressure from anticorruption nongovernmental organizations Sherpa and Transparency International, raided the 101-room building located at 42 Avenue Foch in Paris. Police confiscated 11 luxury cars, five artworks by Rodin and bottles of Château Pétrus, the world’s most expensive wines, among other items.

Equatorial Guinea claims the building was part of the 11,000-square-mile country’s diplomatic mission. France contends it was the private residence of Equatorial Guinea’s flamboyant vice president, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue. Despite the luxurious items found at the mansion, nearly 80% of Equatorial Guinea lives in poverty, according to the World Bank.

“We know best what the legitimate property of our country is,” Carmelo Nvono-Nca, Equatorial Guinea’s ambassador to the Netherlands, told The Hague-based court on Wednesday.

Hearings over the past week have largely focused on when Equatorial Guinea obtained the property, when it informed France it intended to use it as a diplomatic building, and whether France can block Equatorial Guinea from using the building as it wished.

The delegation from Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country pointed out that France had sent four notes verbale, or diplomatic correspondences, to the 42 Avenue Foch address and provided police protection in line with what other embassies received, and that French officials had gone to the building to obtain visas.

“It is a Swiss company and not Equatorial Guinea which owns the building,” Pierre Bodeau-Livinex, another professor of international law at Paris Nanterre University, told the 16-judge-panel on Friday while arguing on behalf of France.

Legal experts say that the case could have far-reaching implications for the concept of diplomatic immunity. France argued in its opening remarks on Tuesday that the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Immunity cannot force a host country to recognize any building at any moment as a diplomatic one.

The son of the current president, Obiang was tried in absentia in Paris for allegedly embezzling public funds and given a three-year suspended sentence and fined $32 million in 2017. A French court upheld the sentence on appeal last week. Obiang is currently residing in Equatorial Guinea.

Equatorial Guinea had argued that Obiang was shielded from prosecution under the Vienna Convention. The International Court of Justice found 2016 that it had jurisdiction to hear arguments over the property but lacked jurisdiction to assess Obiang’s diplomatic status.

A ruling on the case is expected later this year.

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