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Update, July 4, 2014: Berardi was briefly allowed to go to Bata Central Hospital on the evening of July 2. The following day he was sent back to prison, where Berardi has again been denied medical treatment for his serious illnesses.

(Nairobi, July 2, 2014) – President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea should immediately release an unjustly imprisoned Italian citizen and ensure he gets prompt medical treatment, Human Rights Watch said today. Roberto Berardi, a former business partner of President Obiang’s eldest son, has been in custody since January 2013 in an apparent effort to prevent him from disclosing information about the son. Berardi has become seriously ill yet has been denied medical treatment.

A June 30, 2014 medical report seen by Human Rights Watch states that Berardi has developed pulmonary emphysema and typhoid fever in prison. The doctor prescribed medication but his family told Human Rights Watch that prison authorities have not allowed him to have it.

“In Equatorial Guinea, knowing too much about the business dealings of those close to the president can land you in jail,” said Lisa Misol, senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Roberto Berardi’s long imprisonment in miserable conditions has put his health and safety at serious risk and he should be let out immediately to get medical treatment.”

Berardi has been in custody in Bata since early 2013. His family said Berardi’s January 2013 arrest came after he asked his business partner, Teodoro (“Teodorín”) Nguema Obiang Mangue, about a suspicious bank transfer to a US account. The transfer was cited as evidence by the United States Justice Department in a civil complaint accusing Teodorín of laundering the proceeds of alleged corruption.

Teodorín is also the focus of a major corruption investigation in France, which has seized his Paris mansion and other luxury assets. In an apparent effort to grant him immunity from foreign prosecution, his father appointed Teodorín the country’s second vice president, among other posts.

After a brief trial in which Berardi’s family says no evidence was presented to support the charges of theft of company property and fraud, he was convicted in mid-2013 and sentenced to more than two years in prison. According to his family, Berardi has been subjected to torture, long periods of solitary confinement, inhumane conditions of detention, and frequent denial of access to medical attention and legal counsel.

Following international attention to Berardi’s case and concerns about his health and safety, including by the European Parliament and European Commission, President Obiang publicly promised in April 2014 to release him.

Expectations were high that the president would issue a pardon on his birthday in June. However, Berardi remains in custody and his lawyer has expressed concern that new charges may be brought to further silence him.

The lawyer, Ponciano Mbomio Nvó, has himself been the victim of intimidation and reprisals. He was suspended from legal practice for two years, until February 2014, as punishment for criticizing the government’s politically motivated prosecution of a different client.

The Obiang government previously has jailed another former business associate of Teodorín who it suspected had leaked information about Teodorín’s controversial business practices. That business associate, Florentino Manguire, was released under international pressure.  

“President Obiang often makes human rights promises he doesn’t intend to keep,” Misol said. “He should keep his word for once and release Roberto Berardi without further delay.”

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