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France court allows corruption investigation of 3 African leaders

The French Court of Cassation [official website, in French] ruled Tuesday that an investigation into assets obtained in France by three African leaders can proceed. The initial complaint [AP report] in the case, filed by anti-corruption groups Transparency International (TI) and SHERPA [advocacy websites], accused the late Omar Bongo of Gabon, Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea and their relatives of acquiring luxury homes and cars in France with African public funds. The high court's decision allowing the investigation to proceed overturned a lower court ruling that halted the investigation [JURIST report] on the grounds that activists could not bring suits against foreign heads of state. In response to Tuesday's ruling, TI noted that a judge will now be able to determine how the assets were acquired [press release] and what role banking institutions may have played in the alleged money laundering scheme. TI indicated that the ruling may allow those affected by the corruption to seek restitution, a right guaranteed by the UN Convention Against Corruption [materials], which France signed in 2005. TI also expressed hope that the investigation will help to overcome the reluctance to prosecute similar politically and financially sensitive cases in the future.

The complaint in the case was originally filed after a 2007 police inquiry [Reuters report] listed French properties, bank accounts and other assets held by the three African leaders and their relatives. A French magistrate heard the case in 2009 and ruled that the suit could move forward [Le Parisien report, in French], but French state prosecutors appealed the decision to the Paris Court of Appeals, which refused to hear the case. The case is sensitive for France, with Gabon as a former colony. France has struggled with how to reconcile its colonial history [JURIST news archive].

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