Switzerland’s Appalling Decision to Return Seized $100 million Yacht to Known Kleptocrat

Dear Johan Droz, Office of the Attorney General of canton Geneva;

We, the undersigned Equatoguinean and international human rights and anti-corruption organizations write with grave concern and dismay at a recent decision by the Office Attorney General of Switzerland to settle a case against the son of the president of Equatorial Guinea and current Vice President, Teodoro Nguema Obiang (know as Teodorin). 

We welcome the concerns raised by Swiss Parliamentary representatives to the reputational risk Switzerland faces for returning a luxury Yacht to a ‘violent’ kleptocratic regime; as well as their request for clarification in understanding the Swiss decision.

The Office of the Attorney General decided to hand over to Teodorin a $120 million USD yacht, in exchange for him paying $1.5 million in legal fees and having the proceeds from the sale of 25 luxury cars – including a Bugatti Veyron valued at $2.2 million USD and a Swedish-made Koenigsegg One:1 valued at a base price of $2.8 million USD – to be used on ‘social programs’ in Equatorial Guinea, the parameters of which remain unclear to the people of Equatorial Guinea, the intended beneficiaries of the arrangement. No assets should be returned to kleptocrats, and in this case the Swiss authorities must ensure that funds are restituted through well-designed and monitored social programs for the benefit of the people in Equatorial Guinea.

Our organizations strongly believe that the decision of the Geneva Attorney General amounts to a win for the Obiang regime in general, and in particular, for Vice-President Teodorin Nguema Obiang. De facto it leads to amnesty and prevents a criminal investigation or civil charges against a known kleptocrat who, according to investigations by law enforcement authorities in South Africa, Brazil, France and the USA, has plundered the national wealth of Equatorial Guinea through relentless embezzlement and extortion. Furthermore, this decision – a soft slap on the wrist of a compulsive spendthrift – deprives the Equatoguinean people of justice, as it legitimizes the regime's impunity. Moreover, it provides a green light for other kleptocrats to abuse the financial institutions and laws of Switzerland to facilitate their lavish lifestyle while the majority of people in their countries live in abject poverty.

Teodorin has consistently demonstrated his disregard of judicial proceedings against him globally, and asserted himself as above the law. On numerous occasions, the government of Equatorial Guinea has audaciously portrayed Teodorin’s ill-gotten assets as property of the Equatoguinean State in order to deflect corruption and embezzlement charges against him. This facade was evidenced in the French case against Teodorin for embezzlement and money laundering charges. The government of Equatorial Guinea attempted to derail the case by filing precautionary measures before the International Court of Justice, claiming breach of immunity given Teodorin’s position as Vice-president, and declaring Teodorin’s mansion in Paris a diplomatic residence, after it had been raided by the police.

The US Department of Justice concluded that Teodorin used his position in government to divert millions of Dollars in public funds and extorted illegal fees to his personal bank accounts. It found that “after raking in millions in bribes and kickbacks, Nguema Obiang embarked on a corruption-fueled spending spree in the United States”.

French investigators similarly concluded that Teodorin amassed artwork, jewelry and properties in France, including a mansion worth approximately 100 million Euros, with proceeds from corruption. In retaliation, the government of Equatorial Guinea recently issued an arrest warrant against William Bourdon and Daniel Lebegue; respectively, the lawyer leading the case in France against Teodorin, and the former chair of the board of Transparency International-France, the anti-corruption organization that brought the case.

Yet, despite the ample damning evidence of brazen corruption against Teodorin in the US and France, and despite the ongoing corruption investigations against the Obiang family in Brazil and Spain, the Swiss Attorney General decided to turn a blind eye. This is a decision we – the undersigned organizations – believe raises severe concerns about the integrity of the Swiss decision-making process and what the Swiss authorities deemed ‘sufficient’ to ‘repair the damage’ caused by Teodorin to the people of Equatorial Guinea.

With worrying consistency, most recently in Kazakh II and now Equatorial Guinea, the Swiss authorities have shown a willingness to sidestep their commitment to the Global Forum on Asset Recovery (GFAR) principles and responsible asset return. In particular, Principle 9 which precludes “benefit to offenders.

We strongly feel that the Swiss Attorney General’s settlement falls short in remediating the harm caused to victims of corruption and sends a dangerous message to kleptocrats around the world. Thus, we urge you to revise the settlement agreement with the government of Equatorial Guinea. Concretely, we urge you to take all necessary steps to avoid causing inadvertent harm to intended beneficiaries and ensure ‘stolen assets recovered from corrupt officials should benefit the people of the nations harmed by the underlying corrupt conduct’ (Principle 5, GFAR Principles). We urge you to ensure that neither Teodorin nor his family benefit or retain de facto control over the disposition of the funds (Principle 9, GFAR Principles).

Furthermore, Switzerland’s ‘Policy on Asset Recovery’ requires that every repatriated asset must follow the principles of transparency and accountability (objective 14) to ensure that recovered assets are not used again for illicit purposes. The assets must be directed to improve the living conditions of the asset’s country of origin and strengthen the rule of law. In this case the undersigning organizations urge the Office of the Attorney General in Geneva to carefully define the process for restitution, the type of projects, partners to be responsible for implementation and a clear monitoring process.

For this reason, we recommend that the Swiss government:

     Coordinates with the United States and France about asset repatriation to Equatorial Guinea, in particular exploring the possibility of agreeing on a joint process
     Maintains a transparent, accountable and audited process in choosing a third party that will manage the repatriated funds
     Ensure Equatoguinean civil society is involved henceforth in the decision-making process to determine how assets should be returned, for what purpose and by whom, in a transparent and accountable manner (Principle 10, GFAR principles)
     Implement effective protections to prevent government or private reprisals against any potential beneficiaries of the agreement
     Devise a responsible asset return framework which operationalises the GFAR principles and, in particular, is driven by a need to remediate the harm caused to victims of corruption in Equatorial Guinea (Principle 6, GFAR principles).

· EG Justice
· ADISI Cameroon
· African Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ), Nigeria
· Association for Human Rights in Central Asia (AHRCA)
· Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC)/Transparency International Nigeria
· Civil Forum for Asset Recovery (CiFAR)
· Corruption Watch UK
· Global Witness
· HEDA Resource Centre, Nigeria
· International State Crime Initiative (ISCI), Queen Mary University of London and Ulster University
· Sassoufit – Congo Brazzaville
· Transparency International Ireland
· UNCAC Coalition
· Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF)

Tajikistan: Release Gravely Ill Activist

Political Prisoner Says Guards Beat Him, Refused Him Medicine

Mahmadali Hayit
(Almaty, March 20, 2019) – The Tajik government should immediately and unconditionally release a seriously ill political activist who says he has been tortured, nine human rights groups said today. The prisoner, Mahmadali Hayit, is deputy head of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the country’s largest opposition party, which was banned by the government in late 2015. 

During a visit on March 9, 2019, Hayit showed his wife, Savrinisso Jurabekova, injuries on his forehead and stomach that he said were caused by beatings from prison officials to punish him for refusing to record videos denouncing Tajik opposition figures abroad. Jurabekova said that her husband said he was not getting adequate medical care, and they both fear he may die in prison as a result of the beatings. Hayit has spent more than three years in prison and is currently being held at detention center (SIZO) number 1 in Dushanbe.

“These disturbing revelations about Mahmadali Hayit’s ill-treatment should jolt all of Tajikistan’s international partners into action,” said Nadejda Atayeva, president of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia. “We ask diplomatic representatives on the ground in Dushanbe to seek permission to visit Hayit and other prisoners of concern and press for their immediate release.”

The groups are the Association for Central Asian Migrants, the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, Freedom House, Freedom Now, Global Advocates, Human Rights Vision Foundation, Human Rights Watch, International Partnership for Human Rights, and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

Hayit, 62, was arrested in September 2015 on politically motivated charges and sentenced to life in prison in June 2016 following a closed trial. The government banned the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan and then designed it a terrorist organization in 2015.

Following her March prison visit, Jurabekova told journalists and rights groups that her husband is very ill. Hayit told her that he is held in a “tiny, dirty cell” with other prisoners, and that prison officials have beaten him repeatedly during his three years of incarceration. Hayit said they beat him for refusing to participate in videos falsely incriminating the IRPT chairman, Muhiddin Kabiri, who lives in exile.

Hayit suffers from liver and kidney problems. Hayit also told Jurabekova the prison authorities had denied him access to heart medication that she had brought to the prison and that he thought he had suffered a heart attack on February 6 but received no medical care. He told his wife that he had not reported his treatment earlier because he had thought it might be better for him not to speak publicly about it, but he asked her to make it public now because he believes he may not survive another six months if the abuse continues.

In an opinion released in May 2018, the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for Hayit’s immediate release because his detention violated Tajikistan’s international human rights obligations. Tajik authorities currently refuse the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) access to prisoners and detainees in the country. Tajik authorities should urgently act on the UN Working Group’s call, allow Hayit access to independent medical assistance. and release him, the organizations said. 

The United States, the European Union, and other key international entities should make unequivocal calls for Hayit’s release and for the release of all others imprisoned in Tajikistan on politically motivated charges, the groups said. They should also request access for diplomatic representatives, including from the UN and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, to visit Hayit in detention. 

International entities should press the Tajik government to uphold its international obligations to respect freedom of association, assembly, expression, and religion and impose targeted punitive measures, such as asset freezes and visa bans, on Tajik government officials responsible for imprisoning peaceful activists, torture, and other grave human rights violations.

“Tajikistan’s international partners should publicly and unanimously condemn this mockery of justice,” said Marius Fossum, Central Asia representative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “Tajikistan’s human rights situation has been spiraling downward rapidly, and Washington, Brussels, and all actors should consider enacting targeted punitive measures unless immediate human rights improvements are made.”