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French Court Stops African Embezzlement Probe

By Lisa Bryant
29 October 2009

A French appeals court has stopped an investigation into claims three African leaders embezzled millions of dollars from their countries to buy luxury property and cars in France. The plaintiffs say they will appeal the ruling.

The embezzlement complaint targets leaders and their families from Equatorial Guinea, Republic of Congo and Gabon. It was lodged by the French chapter of corruption watchdog group Transparency International, along with another rights group called Sherpa.

A senior member of Transparency International in France, Catherine Pierce said the French court had decided to stop the investigation into the corruption claims.

"We just heard that our complaint cannot be accepted. It is a procedural non-acceptance," Pierce said. "Because in France, only a certain [number] of organizations are allowed to put a complaint in front of the court. And we do not figure on the list that the code of penal procedure has listed."

But Pierce said the groups will lodge an appeal to Cassation Curt, France's highest judicial body. If that is rejected, she says, they may take their case to the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, France.

"Our argument is that the jurisprudence has moved these past years," Pierce said. "And the Court de Cassation has accepted that two associations that were not listed in the code were receivable, because they were really representing the victims."

Transparency International claims the presidents of the three African countries invested millions of dollars into property, cars and bank accounts in France. Since the sums far exceed their salaries as heads of state, the group claims the leaders embezzled money. All three leaders denied the charges.

President Omar Bongo of Gabon, one of the heads of state targeted in the case, died this year. But the complaint also includes family members of all three leaders. Bongo's son, Ali Bongo, was sworn in as president this month.

The three countries are rich in oil and other assets, although the populations are poor. Two of the countries, Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea, rank near the bottom of Transparency International's corruption perceptions index. The group has also given Gabon a low score in terms of perceived corruption.

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