PARIS – France's highest court authorized a probe into the assets of three African heads of state Tuesday, after two rights groups' alleged that the leaders laundered money through French villas, cars and bank accounts.
A lower court had ordered a halt to the probe, which targets Gabon's late leader Omar Bongo, the Republic of Congo's President Denis Sassou-Nguesso and President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea.
That court said there was not enough evidence of wrongdoing, prompting an outcry from Transparency International and Sherpa, the two groups that had made the initial complaints against the leaders.
The two groups accused the leaders of using their nations' riches to buy property and goods in France while their compatriots remain impoverished. They took the case to the Court of Cassation, which ruled Tuesday that the investigation should go forward.
The rights groups welcomed the decision as "a considerable judicial advance" in France, a country that has long been accused of harboring other countries' despots.
The decision should allow future investigators "to surmount the inertia of the prosecutor's office in certain sensitive political and financial affairs," they said in a statement Tuesday. The Paris prosecutor's office had also sought to halt the investigation.
The lawyer for Equatorial Guinea's president, Olivier Pardo, expressed confidence that the investigation would turn up no wrongdoing.
"African heads of state should not be taken for lawless people," Pardo told reporters Tuesday.
Equatorial Guinea is Africa's No. 3 oil producer. Its leader, Obiang, has faced several attempts to topple his government since he seized power in a coup three decades ago. His government is considered among Africa's worst human rights violators.
Omar Bongo ruled oil-producing Gabon for more than 41 years until his death in June. His son Ali Bongo was sworn in as president last year following elections that opposition candidates said were fraudulent. Ali Bongo's lawyer has said his client had no real estate in France, but that he could not speak for the rest of the family.
Sassou-Nguesso seized power in the Republic of Congo for a second time in 1997 with help from Angolan troops.
The rights groups say their investigations determined that Omar Bongo and his entourage bought 39 properties in France, most in Paris' chic 16th arrondissement, and that he had 11 French bank accounts and nine cars in France worth nearly euro1.5 million.
They accuse Sassou-Nguesso and his entourage of having 18 properties in France and 112 bank accounts.
They say Obiang has at least one home in France in his name, and that he and his entourage have at least eight cars in France worth a total of more than euro4.2 million.