18 July 2012
Human rights groups expressed outrage yesterday as the United Nations awarded a scientific prize financed by an African ruler suspected of corruption on a massive scale.
Lawyers said that the prize money itself may have been embezzled by Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, 70, who has been president of Equatorial Guinea for the past 33 years.
The award to three academics for their contribution to life sciences was made by Unesco, the UN's educational, scientific and cultural organisation, despite the protests.
"It is shameful and utterly irresponsible for Unesco to award this prize," a statement signed by seven human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, declared. In a sign of Unesco's embarrassment over the row, there was no mention of the winners' names on its website as the award ceremony got under way in Paris.
The controversy comes a week after French judges issued an international arrest warrant for Mr Obiang's son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, who, like his father, is under investigation for corruption in France.
Mr Obiang Jr, 43, is suspected of embezzling tens of millions of dollars to pay for purchases including 14 sports cars, an array of luxury watches and 14,000 DVDs. When French police raided the 101-room mansion used by him in Paris, they discovered furniture, works of art and wine worth more than €1 million. The Obiangs both deny any wrongdoing.
At a press conference, William Bourdon, a human rights lawyer who is the chairman of Sherpa, an anti-corruption campaign group, claimed that the prize was a ploy by Mr Obiang to gain international respectability.
The Equatorial Guinea president claims to have put up the money himself, but Mr Bourdon said that it had probably come from the public purse.
Mr Obiang proposed the prize in 2008 for work on diseases such as Aids, tuberculosis and malaria. He said that he would make $3 million available over five years, half for the winners, the rest to finance the administrative costs. Equatorial Guinea is an oil-rich former Spanish colony with a population below 700,000, but 76 per cent of its people live below the poverty line.
A Unesco spokeswoman said that the three winners were Dr Maged al-Sherbiny, chairman of the Egyptian Academy of Scientific Research, Dr Felix Dakora, professor of agro-chemical research at Tshwane University of Technology in South Africa, and Dr Rossana Arroyo, professor of research and advanced studies at Mexico's National Polytechnic Institute.
They received $300,000 to share between them, along with a diploma and a statuette by the Equatorial Guinean artist Leandro Mbomio Nsue, a former government minister.