April 29 (Reuters) - A French anti-corruption group and a citizen of Gabon have launched legal action in Paris against the presidents of three oil-producing African countries, targeting assets they or their close relatives own in France.
A French financial police investigation in 2007 showed that the leaders of Gabon, Congo Republic and Equatorial Guinea and their families owned properties and luxury cars worth tens of millions of euros, as well as dozens of bank accounts.
The campaign group Transparency International France says these assets are worth more than their owners officially earn. The presidents deny any wrongdoing.
There is no guarantee that the French justice system will allow the NGO and the private citizen, who argues that as a taxpayer in Gabon he is a victim of corruption, to pursue their action. A magistrate is expected to decide within a few weeks.
The following are key facts about the three countries and the French police investigation, which Reuters has obtained.
The police report gives the prices of the luxury cars, but not the values of all the properties or the amounts held on the bank accounts. At market prices, the properties are worth tens of millions of euros but there is no precise total available.
A former French colony, Gabon is the fourth-biggest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa and one of the longest-established on the continent. It expects output of 273,000 barrels per day (bpd) in 2009.
The local arm of French oil group Total (TOTF.PA) is the top producer, pumping 73,000 bpd in 2008.
President Omar Bongo came to power in 1967 with French support and is Africa’s longest-serving ruler. He has enjoyed close friendships with successive French presidents.
According to the police report, Bongo and his close relatives own 39 properties in France, mostly in exclusive districts of Paris and on the Riviera, and 70 bank accounts. They also have nine luxury cars worth a total 1.5 million euros.
Police noted that the way some of the vehicles were paid for was “unusual, to say the least”. For example, Bongo’s late wife Edith bought a Maybach 57 worth 326,752 euros with a cheque from an account held by the Gabon treasury at the Bank of France.
Through a French lawyer, Bongo has denied that his and his family’s assets were acquired with embezzled public funds.
Also a former French colony, Congo Republic is the fifth-biggest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa with a daily output estimated at 220,000 bpd. Total is the number one producer, with output of 85,000 bpd.
President Denis Sassou-Nguesso seized power in a coup in 1979 and ruled until 1992, when he lost an election. He returned to power in 1997 after a civil war. Like Bongo, he has enjoyed backing from Paris and President Nicolas Sarkozy visited him in the capital Brazzaville in March.
French police found that Sassou-Nguesso and his close relatives own 24 properties and 112 bank accounts in France.
They found that Sassou-Nguesso’s daughter Edith, who was Bongo’s late wife, and other members of the ruling family of Congo, bought a mansion in the rich 8th district of Paris for 18.9 million euros -- the single biggest transaction mentioned in the police file.
In an interview in March with French newspaper Le Figaro, Sassou-Nguesso said his French property portfolio was modest and he was not responsible for what his children and relatives did.
He said he had acquired Villa Suzette, a mansion in the rich Paris suburb of Le Vesinet, to house his children while they were studying in France.
A former Spanish colony, tiny Equatorial Guinea burst onto the sub-Saharan African oil scene relatively late, in 1992, and has quickly risen to the rank of third-biggest producer, after Nigeria and Angola. Oil output is estimated at 380,000 bpd.
President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo seized power from his dictatorial uncle in a palace coup in 1979 and has ruled ever since. Amnesty International says his human rights record is one of the worst on the continent.
French police identified eight luxury cars and one apartment in a wealthy part of Paris owned by Obiang’s son Teodorin, also minister for agriculture and forestry. The cars, worth a total of 4.2 million euros, are two Ferraris, one Maybach, two Bugattis, one Rolls-Royce Phantom and two Maseratis.
Authorities in Equatorial Guinea have not responded specifically to the French investigation, although they have defended their record in the past, saying it was legal in their country for ministers to receive commissions on business deals. (For a related analysis, please double click on [ID:nLR519071]) (Reporting by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Giles Elgood)