France - Gabon

BNP Paribas charged in France for laundering assets linked to Gabon

For the first time, a financial insitution is indicted in the so-called "ill-gotten gains" case involving Gabon
For the first time, a financial insitution is indicted in the so-called "ill-gotten gains" case involving Gabon AFP/File

BNP Paribas, one of France’s leading banks, has been indicted on suspicion of laundering tens of millions of euros of Gabonese public money stemming from corruption and embezzlement. It’s the latest development in a long-running investigation into luxury real estate acquired in France by the family of the late president of Gabon Omar Bongo.

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The charges of laundering and misappropriation of public funds were issued on 11 May as part of the so-called “ill-gotten gains” enquiry, AFP reported on Thursday, citing sources close to the case and the judiciary.

According to the investigations, the bank "failed in its due diligence obligations" by not reporting to the authorities a suspicious bank account through which tens of millions of euros were allegedly used by the Bongo family to acquire real estate in France.

The transactions, made between 2002 and 2009, concern the account of Atelier 74, a French interior design company in charge of finding properties for the Gabonese president's family and renovating them at great cost. 

A first

The ill-gotten gains case was first opened in 2010. The BNP indictment is the first time a financial institution has been caught by the probe.

William Bourdon, a lawyer for anti-corruption group Transparency International, a plaintiff in the investigation, described the charges as “an historic first in this case”.

The decision was "extremely solid”, he said, and opened the "great French side of the case".

Two notaries and a lawyer are also being prosecuted prompting Bourdon to add: "The charges show that there are no big operations of money laundering and misappropriation of public funds without financial engineers."

BNP Paribas declined to comment.

"We never comment on an ongoing legal procedure,” the bank told AFP.  The bank's entourage, however, said it "disputes any criminal responsibility for these facts prior to 2009".

“Leading" role 

From the 1990s onwards, the Bongo family acquired twelve properties in Paris and Nice for nearly €32 million, according to investigators from France's anti-corruption police (OCRGDF).

In order to make these acquisitions via non-trading property companies (SCI), cash was paid in Libreville by the head of state's confidants into the account of Atelier 74's Gabonese subsidiary.

The sums were then transferred to Atelier 74's account at BNP in France. A total of €52 million circulated between 1997 and 2009, according to a 2017 report.

"The systematic use of cashier's cheques...should have alerted the bank", which played a "leading" role in the money laundering scheme, underlined the OCRGDF.

"It is difficult to believe that the bank at that time did not ask for proof of transfer: origin of the funds, the existence of contracts or agreements between these two entities," it added.

Fears of repercussions

As early as March 2009, bank officials had considered it "desirable to sever relations with Omar Bongo" but postponed taking action due to fears of repercussions on his collaborators in Gabon.

At least 13 people are under investigation in the probe, including five members of Congo-Brazzaville's Nguesso family, Omar Bongo’s former lawyer, and French business people. Members of the Bongo family have been questioned but none have been prosecuted to date.

Omar Bongo was president of Gabon from 1967 until his death in 2009. He was succeeded by his son, Ali Bongo.

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