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French Court Clears Way for Investigating African Despots

Combination of two recent pictures showing, from left, the president of Gabon, Omar Bongo, and the president of Congo Brazzaville, Denis Sassou Nguesso, who are two of the three African leaders being probed for allegedly buying property in France with emb

Human-rights activists are hailing a new ruling by France's highest court authorizing a probe into the assets of three African leaders. It is unclear, though, whether the case will pave the way for other claims against allegedly corrupt heads of state.

Regardess, the ruling by France's highest Court of Cassation marks a long-fought victory for two French-based rights groups: the NGO Sherpa and the French branch of anti-corruption group Transparency International.

The court's decision gives the go-ahead for a case charging the presidents of Equatorial Guinea and Republic of Congo, along with Gabon's former leader Omar Bongo, with buying luxury villas and vehicles in France - with money that rightfully belonged to their people.

Transparency International board member Catherine Pierce said the case also marks a precedent for France's justice system.

"It was not possible before, because organizations like ours were not eligible to start such a case (i.e. - bring charges)," said Pierce. "And finally ... the Court of Cassation has allowed us to do that, which means nowadays, people like us are able to fight corruption even if the French state does not want to."

Last year, a lower court ordered a halt into an investigation of the leaders' French assets. The Paris prosecutors' office also tried to halt the probe.

Lawyers for the Congolese and Equatorial Guinea leaders said their clients deny the charges. The son of Omar Bongo, current Gabonese President Ali Bongo, said he has no real estate in France.

Pierce said Transparency International winning its case does not necessarily set a precedent for similar cases against alleged despots. She also said it will continue to be difficult for African rights groups to take on corrupt leaders, without paying a heavy price.

"We had some people willing to join our case from those countries and they have had big troubles," said Pierce. "One even died. So it is something very difficult to do over there, so they are counting on us."

France is not the only country to crack down on alleged corruption by developing nations and their leaders.

Neighboring Switzerland froze for years the bank accounts of former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, who allegedly embezzled millions of dollars belonging to his country. While a court overturned the ruling this year, the Swiss government said it would continue to block Duvalier's assets until a better anti-corruption law is passed.