Teodorin Obiang
Despite being called out for 'relentless embezzlement and extortion', Equatorial Guinea's vice president Teodorin Obiang walked away from a French court with a suspended jail sentence. Steve Jordan / AFP / Getty

The three-year suspended jail sentence handed out recently to Equatorial Guinea's vice president Teodorin Obiang, by a French court, for what is effectively a crime of grand corruption, sends out the wrong message to kleptomaniacs and those who help facilitate this crime.

For many years now, I have banged the drum to see grand corruption considered a crime against humanity under Article 7(1)(k) of the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court. I have written previously on the subject and often discussed its implications.

The amount of money stolen by Obiang is mind-boggling. The fact that he decided to absent himself from his trial may be indicative of his perspective on these matters.

The French investigation, along with the organisation Human Rights Watch, indicated that Obiang officially earned approximately $100,000 (£75,600) annually in his post as Minister for Agriculture.

Although a significant salary by that country's standards, French investigators revealed that he purchased a $196m mansion, 18 luxury cars, plus a $24m art collection, that could never be covered by his declared earnings.

It does not stop there. The US Department of Justice (DoJ) has also looked into the ruling Obiang family's lifestyle, and related allegations of money laundering.

"Through relentless embezzlement and extortion, Vice President Nguema Obiang shamelessly looted his government and shook down businesses in his country to support his lavish lifestyle, while many of his fellow citizens lived in extreme poverty," said former Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell.

Allegations included the purchase of a $30m Malibu, US mansion and a $38.5m private jet. This matter was settled in 2014 when he agreed to forfeit $30m to US authorities, plus other assets with a view to their value being used for the benefit of the people of Equatorial Guinea.

The DoJ decision to deal with Obiang's wrongdoing by way of civil asset forfeiture is an interesting one. I have long advocated the use of confiscation and forfeiture as a means of policing those who would commit grand corruption.

It is similarly striking that the French have seized the assets listed above, which means that both they and the Americans have at least hit him in his pockets, even if he appears to be walking a very fortuitous line that has to date steered him away from a custodial sentence.

The bigger issue here is the impact on the victims i.e. the people of Equatorial Guinea. If somebody helps themselves to money and assets that should be used to build new hospitals and schools for ordinary citizens, should they resign themselves to taking a financial hit so that they evade jail? That is not right. Surely somebody who has stolen hundreds of millions of dollars by way grand corruption needs to hear the metal doors of prison slam shut.

The fact that Obiang has simply decided to cut his losses and walk away from his ill-gotten gains is disconcerting. Why? Because to me this is indicative of somebody who has even more assets secreted away, and is confident that they will be able to replenish their losses very quickly, likely at the continued sufferance of Equatorial Guinea's population.

The use of confiscation and forfeiture in tandem with a criminal investigation can be a profoundly effective strategy. Most law enforcement agencies are set up from the outset of an enquiry to conduct their investigation in this manner.

I tip my hat to the hard working criminal investigators and prosecutors. They need our support and are deserving of our respect. However, the French and American handling of this case effectively amounts to no more than a slap on the wrist for Obiang.

Among the assets acquired through his dubious activities is valuable Michael Jackson memorabilia. The late entertainer lyricised: "Don't stop till you get enough". This seems to be the case for Obiang's approach to representing his people.


Martin Kenney is managing partner of Martin Kenney & Co. Solicitors, a specialist investigative and asset recovery practice based in the British Virgin Islands. Kenney focuses on multi-jurisdictional fraud and grand corruption cases.