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An account at Barclays bank was used by Teodorin Obiang, the son of the dictator of Equatorial Guinea, to buy €18m (£16m at current rates) of art from the estate of the late Yves Saint Laurent.
Teodorin earns a salary of $6,799 (£4,200, €4,800) a month as a minister in his father's government, yet lives a playboy life, owning fast cars, private jets and expensive real estate. The Barclays account was in the name of his forestry company, Somagui Forestal and the French anti-money laundering authority, Tracfin, suspects the funds could have been illicitly earned.
"Banks have a legal obligation to do checks on their customers. What due diligence did Barclays do to reassure itself that this money was not the proceeds of corruption?" said Anthea Lawson, head of the banks campaign at Global Witness.
The latest information came to light in French police documents seen by Le Monde, revealing new evidence in the ‘biens mal acquis' or illicit enrichment case brought by the French anti-corruption groups Sherpa and Transparency International France. The case alleges that the presidential families of Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Republic of Congo own assets in France that could not have been bought with their official salaries.
Global Witness and Sherpa believe that banking regulators in France and the UK should investigate Barclays' relationship with Teodorin Obiang. More broadly, regulators should overhaul their efforts to enforce banks' compliance with anti-money laundering laws, to ensure that the EU is not a safe haven for corrupt funds from poor countries.
"It would be much more effective to prevent banks dealing with corrupt senior officials than to go through the difficult, expensive and lengthy process of trying to get the money back later on - as the Tunisians and Egyptians currently know all too well," said Maud Perdriel-Vaissière of Sherpa.
Teodorin's purchases at the February 2009 auction at Christie's France included a 16th-century bronze figure of Hermaphrodite by Gianfrancesco Susini for €744,716 (£653,634) and a gilded silver seventeenth century bull by Hans Valentin Laminit for almost €298,604 (£262,078).
Teodorin's lifestyle is in stark contrast to that of the majority of the population of Equatorial Guinea. Oil wealth means GDP per capita is now at the level of European countries, yet according to the most recent statistics 77 percent of the population falls below the poverty line, 35 percent die before the age of 40, and 58 percent lack access to safe water.
Barclays said it could not confirm or deny relationships with named individuals, and that as a regulated institution it must comply with legal anti-money laundering requirements. Its procedures include enhanced due diligence for high risk clients, it said in a statement.
Notes to editors
According to customs documents seen by Le Monde, in November 2009 a shipment of 26 luxury cars and six motorbikes worth $12 million came through France from the U.S. for re-export to Equatorial Guinea. They included seven Ferraris, four Mercedes, five Bentleys, four Rolls-Royces, two Bugattis, an Aston Martin, a Porsche, a Lamborghini and a Maserati. In 2010 Teodorin added another Ferrari and Bugatti to his extensive fleet of cars at a cost of between €1.5 and 2 million. It is unclear which bank he used to buy the cars.
Questions about Teodorin's wealth have been raised since 2004, when a US Senate committee investigated the handling of Equatorial Guinea's oil funds by the American bank, Riggs. In 2006 Global Witness reported that Teodorin had bought a $35 million mansion in California, and in the same year he was reported to have said to a South African court that it was standard practice for government ministers in Equatorial Guinea to take a cut of government contracts. In 2009 Global Witness and Sherpa revealed that he had an account at Barclays in France, still open several years after the downfall of Riggs.