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Swiss Prosecutors Squander Opportunity to Counter Kleptocracy

Equatorial Guinea Vice President Gets to Keep $100-Million Yacht in Settlement

In December 2016, authorities seized a yacht reportedly worth $100 million from Teodorin Obiang, the president’s eldest son and vice president, as part of an ongoing Swiss investigation into money-laundering. © 2009 Madmack66 (Wikimedia Commons)

The son of the president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodorin Nguema Obiang, who is also vice president, kept a US$100-million superyacht in the Netherlands and 25 exotic cars in Switzerland. The yacht is worth more than Equatorial Guinea’s entire health budget in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available. Teodorin has spent his entire adult life as a public official in a country with dismal health and education records despite its vast oil wealth.

More than two years ago, Swiss prosecutors seized the yacht and cars as part of their investigation into whether Teodorin bought them using Swiss bank accounts and businesses to illegally launder money he stole from the public treasury. The case presented a rare opportunity to puncture the absolute impunity for corruption Teodorin enjoys at home, while returning some of his vast sums of money to the people to whom it belongs. It could also have sent an important message to kleptocrats everywhere that foreign governments will not permit them to hide or spend stolen funds on their territory. Such a message would have been especially powerful from Swiss prosecutors given the country’s reputation for financial secrecy. Instead, they settled for crumbs, while allowing Teodorin to keep the pie.

In October, Teodorin Obiang, the president’s eldest son and vice president, was convicted in absentia in France of laundering tens of millions of euro that he looted from the public treasury. © Getty Images

On February 7, the prosecution announced that Equatorial Guinea agreed to pay €1.3 million (US$1.5 million) to cover the cost of the investigation and Teodorin would forfeit the cars, which will be sold and the proceeds directed to a “social program” in Equatorial Guinea. In exchange, they would end the investigation without bringing criminal or civil charges and release the yacht.

The prosecutors noted they are permitted to close cases when the “person under investigation has done everything expectable to repair any damage from alleged actions.” It is unclear from the statement whether the settlement includes an admission of guilt, but by allowing Teodorin to avoid further legal scrutiny and keep his prized yacht it only reinforces the sense of impunity that hangs over the case.

The Swiss case follows several other international money laundering cases against Teodorin. A French court convicted him in absentia in 2017 of spending more than €100 million (US$113 million) in public funds in France. Three years earlier, the United States Department of Justice settled a money laundering case against him after he agreed to forfeit a US$30-million California mansion.

At the very least, Switzerland should ensure the proceeds from selling the cars go to programs that promote transparency in Equatorial Guinea and help civil society hold their officials accountable for corruption.

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