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Equatorial Guinea: France Illegally Seized 'Embassy'

Exterior view of the Peace Palace housing the World Court in The Hague, Netherlands, Feb. 17, 2020.

Lawyers for Equatorial Guinea told United Nations judges Monday that French authorities illegally seized a mansion in Paris that the African nation insists operated as its embassy. The building was seized as part of a money laundering investigation into the son of the central African nation's president.

"France has submitted my country to treatment which is totally arbitrary, discriminatory, and consequently contrary to international law," Carmelo Nvono-Nca, who led Equatorial Guinea's legal team, told judges as public hearings in the case got underway.

The International Court of Justice case is focused on the diplomatic status of a multimillion-euro (dollar) mansion on one of the French capital's most prestigious streets, Avenue Foch.

French authorities seized it in 2012 as they investigated Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue for misuse of public funds and money laundering. Equatorial Guinea argues that, under an international treaty governing diplomatic relations, France had no right to seize the building as it had been operating as the country's embassy since 2011.

Equatorial Guinea filed a case with the world court in 2016 arguing that Obiang, who is his country's vice president, had immunity from prosecution. However the United Nation's highest court said in 2018 that it did not have jurisdiction over that issue and narrowed the case down to the status of the mansion.

An appeals court in France a week ago upheld Obiang's 2017 conviction and three-year suspended sentence for embezzling millions of dollars in public money, and fined him 30 million euros.

The conviction also ordered the Avenue Foch mansion confiscated, but the ruling cannot be carried out pending the outcome of the world court case.

Nvono-Nca told judges that France was continuing "its attacks against the dignity of my country which started almost 10 years ago before the French courts. The French courts where our vice president was accused — and even our head of state was accused — of crimes which in our view, simply never occurred."

Lawyer Michael Wood told the court that Equatorial Guinea would be seeking compensation for "material and moral" damage caused by France's actions.

Lawyers representing France are scheduled to present their arguments on Tuesday. Judges will likely take months to issue a ruling.