Tuesday, May 12, 2009

French investigating magistrate to probe African leaders

A story in French media has gained little attention in the English-language press: the fact that a French investigating magistrate, Françoise Desset, has agreed to allow investigation of a case brought in December by human rights lawyer William Bourdon, involving the alleged possession by three oil-rich Francophone west African leaders: Omar Bongo of Gabon, Dénis Sassou Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville, and Teodoro Nguema Obiang "Teodorín", the son of Equatorial Guinea's Obiang Nguema (today's blogger has, as it happens, personally met all four while reporting from West Africa in years past.) As Bourdon said:

"Whatever the merits and competences of these leaders, nobody could seriously believe that these assets have been acquired solely as a result of the fruits of their hard work."

The fact that an investigating magistrate has taken on this case is highly significant - this is a big deal, and it comes at a time when French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been making noises about removing the very institution of the investigating magistrate. Unlike in many countries, where there is an adversarial judicial system (there is a prosecution, and a defence, and jury trials) France has the institution of the investigating magistrate: a legally trained detective who sits in the middle of the investigation, neither prosecutor nor defence, and with tremendous power to dig up evidence and follow his or her nose to find what is really going on. Investigating magistrates have pursued a number of highly complex cases in France, not least the famous "Elf Affair" from 1994-2001, a tale of tax havens and political power which uncovered astonishing details, the likes of which have never been aired in, say, Britain, where jury trials are far less suited to the kinds of highly complex cases that are required when dealing with financial wrongdoing (how convenient for the City of London!)

France's judicial system has its great faults, too, of course. Still, what is significant is that if this case moves forwards (and this is not certain: these African presidents, especially Bongo, have an unusually high degree of political influence, and there are ways that the politicians could still prevent this case from being pursued: as Libération put it: "the procedural guerrilla warfare is not over yet") it does raise the possibility of a whole new area of hidden financial flows being aired in public for the first time.

We will watch this one with great interest.


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