Retour sur les immunités des états étrangers suite à la loi Sapin 2

L’émission « le Bien Commun » animée par Antoine Garapon sur Amicus Radio a été l’occasion de revenir sur une disposition contestable de la loi Sapin 2 insidieusement glissée dans la foule de propositions nouvelles portées par la loi Sapin 2. L’article 24 (renuméroté 59) modifie profondément les règles en matière d’immunités d’états étrangers et les renforce considérablement. Retrouvez mon analyse critique et celle du professeur Matthias Audit sous le lien suivant : bit.ly/2nn3hh1

INVITATION – CONFÉRENCE : « Quelle coopération entre procureurs et entreprises, après la loi Sapin 2 ? »

Venez assister le 27 mars prochain à la conférence qu’organise France Amériques sur le thème « Quelle coopération entre procureurs et entreprises, après la loi Sapin 2? » en présence d‘Eric Russo, Premier vice-procureur au Parquet national financier.

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How the Case Against Equatorial Guinea’s Leaders Exposes the Limits of Forfeiture Efforts

Equatorial Guinea is an oil-producing former Spanish colony, located in central Africa. Most of its population lives in very harsh conditions while its president, Teodoro Obiang, lives in opulence and luxury. Holding the power since 1979, Obiang is Africa’s longest servant.

First Case Fails

In March 2007, Sherpa and other organizations filed, in France, a complaint against Obiang and several other African heads of state and their families for conspiracy and concealment of embezzled funds. Ultimately, though, the Paris Prosecutor’s office dropped the case after an investigation.

Transparency International Joins Fight

In 2008, Transparency International France and a Gabonese citizen joined Sherpa and filed a formal complaint with an investigating judge against Obiang, the president of Congo-Brazzaville Denis Sassou Nguesso and the president of Gabon Omar Bongo. In the complaint, all three were accused of concealing the embezzlement of public funds from their respective states.

A New Enemy

While proceedings concerning Congo and Gabon seem to drag on, the case concerning Equatorial Guinea went forward. It shifted from Obiang, who has immunity, to his son Teodorin Nguema Obiang (TNO). TNO is accused of buying numerous properties in France and personally benefitting from more than €200 million of public money.

In May 2012, TNO was nominated vice president of the country, giving him the opportunity to claim immunity. However, the French investigating judge did not consider this immunity. In fact, two months later, an international arrest warrant was issued against TNO, and the judge ordered that his building located 42 Avenue Foch, Paris, be seized. In response, members of Equatorial Guinea’s embassy in France occupied the building.

In March 2014, TNO was put under the status of “mis en examen,” meaning he was officially investigated.

Meanwhile, Equatorial Guinea launched a bid at the International Court of Justice to prevent the trial from moving forward, arguing TNO was protected by immunity as vice president. The country also asked for the building, located 42 Avenue Foch, to be given diplomatic immunity as housing the diplomatic mission of Equatorial Guinea in France.

On the first request, the ICJ found that the Vienna Convention does not create provisions concerning immunities for high ranking officials. That means it does not have jurisdiction to make a determination on whether TNO enjoys immunity and whether France violated such immunity. This cleared the way for France to pursue the case against TNO in French Courts. TNO’s immunity issue will therefore have to be decided by French Courts.

With regards to the diplomatic immunity of the building, the ICJ asked France to take all measures at its disposal to ensure that the premises remain secure until a decision on the merits about the immunity can be made.

Hearing with the Paris Criminal Court 

TNO’s trial for “laundering of corruption, embezzlement of public funds, misuse of corporate assets and abuse of trust” was supposed to take place in front of the Paris Criminal Court on January 2, 2017. However, TNO’s lawyer Emmanuel Marsigny asked the Court to delay the trial, arguing he needed more time to prepare his client’s defense. The hearing was postponed and is now scheduled for July 19, 2017, granting more time for defense preparations and considering the pending case at ICJ. TNO was not present at the initial hearing and will probably be tried in absentia in July, if the trial is not postponed again.

Possible Outcomes

If the French criminal case goes further and TNO is found guilty, the assets seized will benefit the French Treasury. Any effort to give them back to Equatorial Guinea will be difficult. The fear is that the money returned will find its way back to the Obiangs.

Transparency International, too, has a stake in the assets, as it has been recognized as having standing in the criminal proceedings as a Civil Party. As such, it will be in a position to claim moral damages – the amounts of which will be symbolic – and some limited costs.

So, the people of Equatorial Guinea may not, after all, benefit from the investigation and seizure of the unlawfully obtained assets.

Limits of Such Proceedings Exposed

The case, like many similar cases, is creating diplomatic tensions between France and the African nation’s government. A question then becomes, are the strained relationships between countries trying to recover assets a reason why France’s pursuit of cases against its stronger allies of Congo and Gabon has not been as swift?

Another question is why is TNO the only person or entity linked to this case to be pursued by French prosecutors?

A French bank that Le Monde alleges played a key role in the transfer of Obiang’s money to France, for instance, was put under the specific status of “assisted witness” in August 2015 but was not indicted. The reasons as to why the case against this bank was dismissed are not known. Questions could also be raised concerning all those who facilitated the buying of goods and properties by Obiang in France.

If the purpose is to prevent kleptocrats from buying assets in France, shouldn’t France first target those within its borders who help the thieves along the way? Wouldn’t that be the most efficient way to deter criminals? And wouldn’t it be easier to prosecute those than the vice president of a country who doesn’t accept the jurisdiction of French Courts and who will be tried in absentia?

Mixed Results

So this case will ultimately bring mixed results.

On one hand, the case indeed shows the abuses of the Obiangs in Equatorial Guinea. Yet, the confiscated assets will likely not find their way back to Equatorial Guinea. Instead, they will benefit the French Treasury. Further, ignoring the individuals and entities who helped TNO, puts France at odds with trying to deter future crimes similar in nature.

Of course, if Equatorial Guinea were to get rid of its present rulers and try to obtain the return of its assets, it should get all the necessary help from French authorities. But until that happens, is it really worth going after the actual rulers of a country who can claim immunity rather than effectively preventing them from spending their money in France by prosecuting those who help them here?

Lessons Learned, Perhaps

The case is severing diplomatic relations between France and Equatorial Guinea for no benefit to the Equatorial Guinea people. Along the way, France seems to be lecturing the rulers of a formal colonial country, while not cleaning its own house.

Instead, France should concentrate on asset-recovery cases where the victimized country is actively claiming the return of the assets.

In the meantime, Transparency International France is aware of the paradox and will try to make some proposals to reform the legal system regarding asset restitution, but for now, there doesn’t seem to be a simple solution. And France is not the only country at odds with this issue. The US is faced with the same problem when it comes to Equatorial Guinea or Uzbekistan.

FRANCE 24 – ITW // It’s a family affair : France 2017 frontrunner Fillon denies phoney job claim

« Could new revelations upend France’s presidential race? Three months before the first round of voting, prosecutors are investigating claims that the wife of frontrunner François Fillon earned a salary as his parliamentary assistant with almost no one recalling her actual contribution. While it’s legal for politicians for hire family members, does it create a perception of nepotism? What should the rules be? »

Produced by Michele BARBERO, François WIBAUX and Van MEGUERDITCHIAN.

GUESTS

Alissa Johannsen RUBIN

New York Times Bureau Chief in Paris

Stéphane BONIFASSI

Executive Director of FraudNet

Charles GIVADINOVITCH

Member of Maisons-Laffitte Municipal Council

Martin MICHELOT

Deputy Director, EUROPEUM

Fraud and Asset Recovery in 2016 and Beyond

As part of the Who’s Who Legal: Asset Recovery 2016 guidebook, I was invited to participate in a roundtable discussion and give my insights about trends and issues facing asset-recovery lawyers and our clients today.

A couple of topics that I have been vocal about recently emerged from the roundtable that I know have deeply affected my practice and that I know my colleagues, especially those in the FraudNet network to which I belong, contend with on a regular basis.

Widening the Civil Route


I feel strongly that in France, we need to widen the path to try fraud cases following a civil route. France is still too restrictive in allowing victims to use civil proceedings to recover their assets. I’ve seen this in other jurisdictions as well.

There are too many hurdles facing victims. Of course, they can pursue the criminal route as French law allows them to be parties to criminal proceedings. But prosecutors often are too overwhelmed with cases and are not in a position to effectively deal with fraud cases, unless a major fraud case is at stake.

To be certain, we are seeing some progress in the frame of civil proceedings, but it is still a difficult battle. The partners in my firm and I will continue raising the awareness of the French judiciary on this topic through articles and conferences. –Read More.

Stéphane Bonifassi, Executive Director of FraudNet, specializes in white-collar crime litigation and complex commercial litigation involving criminal or quasi-criminal conduct. In recent years, he has regularly represented individuals as well as corporations, victims of fraud. His practice is international and often involves mutual legal assistance issues. He has also developed a strong practice in the field of confiscation and forfeiture, freezing orders, attachments and similar measures mostly involving international parties and raising issues such as transnational enforcement of judgments and orders, lifting the corporate veil or state immunities.

ICC FraudNet is an international network of independent lawyers who are leading civil asset recovery specialists in each country. Recognized by Chambers Global as the world’s leading asset recovery legal network, our membership extends to every continent and the world’s major economies, as well as leading offshore wealth havens that have complex bank secrecy laws and institutions where the proceeds of fraud often are hidden. Founded in 2004 by the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), the world’s business organization, FraudNet operates under the auspices of the ICC’s London-based Commercial Crime Services unit.

Loi Sapin 2 : « Le Parlement doit réintroduire la transaction pénale »

Dans son avis écartant du projet de loi Sapin 2 un mécanisme novateur de transaction pénale pour les infractions de corruption, le Conseil d’Etat sermonne le ministre en ces termes :

«… En l’absence de contradiction et de débat public, l’intervention de la justice perd sa valeur d’exemplarité et la recherche de la vérité s’en trouve affectée. »

Le Conseil d’Etat semble donc penser que la justice pénale actuelle, qui ambitionne de mener chaque dossier de corruption devant une audience de jugement, permet « exemplarité » et « recherche de la vérité ».
Pour ceux qui suivent ces affaires, cela fait au mieux sourire.
Les rares affaires qui sont jugées, souvent plus de dix ans après les faits, se terminent par des relaxes ou des peines de prison avec sursis et de faibles amendes. L’exemplarité est nulle. Quant à la vérité, tout le monde a oublié au moment du jugement quels étaient les faits et les protagonistes (s’ils sont encore vivants).

23e rang des Etats perçus comme les moins corrompus

Pour la corruption internationale, qui est un délit pénal depuis 2000, la justice française n’a rendu à ce jour qu’une seule décision condamnant des personnes morales. Et encore, cette condamnation prononcée le 26 février 2016 par la Cour d’appel de Paris dans l’affaire Pétrole contre nourriture n’est pas définitive, puisqu’un pourvoi en cassation est pendant.
La France se fait régulièrement étriller par la communauté internationale pour son laxisme contre la corruption. Alors qu’elle est la 6e puissance économique mondiale, elle ne figure qu’au 23e rang des Etats perçus par leur population, comme les moins corrompus selon l’indice de Transparency International.

Nos partenaires pour l’application de la Convention de l’OCDE sur la lutte contre la corruption d’agents publics étrangers perdent patience, en particulier les Etats-Unis. Des entreprises françaises ont été sévèrement sanctionnées par la justice américaine ces dernières années. Elles ont dû s’acquitter de sommes se chiffrant en centaines de millions de dollars (772 millions de dollars pour Alstom).

Pour dire les choses clairement, le contentieux de la corruption transnationale des entreprises françaises est aujourd’hui traité à Washington. La France abandonne de facto sa souveraineté judiciaire aux Etats-Unis et des millions d’euros de sanction tombent tout droit des comptes bancaires des acteurs économiques français dans les caisses du trésor américain.

Deux écoles

Les entreprises françaises surveillent avec attention les règles américaines de lutte contre la corruption de peur de se retrouver dans la ligne de mire des procureurs américains, mais elles ne craignent pas la justice française ; et c’est bien la justice américaine qui sert l’exemplarité et la recherche de la vérité contre la corruption, par le biais de cette transaction pénale que rejette le Conseil d’Etat.

Face à l’échec de la justice française, il y a deux écoles : soit doter la justice de moyens supplémentaires, soit changer de méthode et permettre à la justice de transiger avec les entreprises, comme le proposait la loi Sapin 2 et comme le font non seulement les Etats-Unis, mais encore l’Allemagne, le Royaume-Uni et les Pays Bas.

Dans le camp du renforcement des moyens, revendication sans espoir à court ou moyen terme, le syndicat de la magistrature, Anticor et Sherpa fustigent la transaction pénale. Evoquons pourtant les coûts d’une enquête de corruption. La société Siemens, poursuivie par les procureurs américains et allemands en 2008, a dépensé environ 550 millions d’euros en honoraires d’avocats et d’auditeurs pour faire réaliser une enquête interne en vue d’une transaction avec la justice.

Ce chiffre est à comparer avec le coût des services de police judiciaire en France, évalué à 4 milliards d’euros par la Cour des comptes. Siemens a dépensé 1/8e du budget annuel de la police judiciaire française ! Les autres procédures menées aux Etats-Unis coûtent régulièrement plus de 100 millions d’euros à l’entreprise qui réalise l’enquête à ses frais. Le gouvernement américain a compris depuis longtemps qu’il ne pouvait plus financer ces enquêtes extrêmement complexes, d’où l’appel à la transaction. Mais selon le Conseil d’Etat, la justice française doit s’en priver…

Efficacité contre incantations

La procédure pénale française n’est plus adaptée à la délinquance économique et financière. Devant la complexité des montages financiers et le raffinement des stratégies de corruption, les juges d’instruction en sont réduits à chercher des aiguilles dans des bottes de foin. Sans la coopération des entreprises aux enquêtes, la justice française continuera à s’agiter dans le vide.

Transparency International France avait fait une étude très approfondie sur la transaction et conclu à son efficacité. Cette étude méritait une meilleure réponse que les sempiternelles incantations de quelques associations reprises de manière bien surprenante par le Conseil d’Etat en quelques paragraphes sentencieux.

Pour répondre au Conseil d’Etat, rappelons que le juge n’est pas écarté de la procédure de transaction puisqu’il la valide. L’exigence de publicité de la justice est prise en compte. La transaction est certes négociée à l’abri des regards publics – sans quoi elle n’aboutirait jamais – mais l’accord de transaction et l’ordonnance de validation sont publiés sur Internet. On aimerait qu’il en aille autant des jugements et arrêts rendus par les juridictions du fond en France où trouver une décision relève du parcours du combattant !

Le Parlement doit donc se saisir du débat et réintroduire la transaction pour donner à la justice française les moyens de l’exemplarité et de la recherche de vérité en matière de criminalité économique et financière. Car aujourd’hui, en ces matières, la justice française se marginalise de plus en plus, au vu et au su de la communauté internationale… et des délinquants.

Stéphane Bonifassi (Avocat au barreau de Paris) et Juliette Lelieur (Maître de conférences à l’université de Strasbourg).

The Global Impact of the Panama Papers Leak

Following the leak of what we’ve now come to know as the Panama Papers, I joined Pascal Saint-Amans, Director of the OECD’s Centre for Tax Policy and Administration, Friederike Röder, France Director of the NGO One and Serge Michel, a journalist at Le Monde, on the TV channel France 24, to share my thoughts about the global impact of this leak.

Here are my four main points:

  1. Because of an efficient US tax fraud policy, there are very few Americans included in the Panama Papers.French newspaper LeMonde addressed this phenomenon in its article – the one I reference in my interview. And The New Yorker also posed this question in its coverage of the Panama Papers, presenting some of the same points.
  2. Public registries of companies’ beneficial ownership is not the magic wand some people think it is. Public registrars are not armed to check the information provided to them on such a complex issue as the identity of a beneficial owner. The World Bank STAR initiative took on this topic in its “Puppet Masters” report, to which FraudNet gave its contribution.
  3. Companies’ service providers (and this includes law firms) should always have the information about beneficial ownership available. This information should be available on the basis of a judge order for law enforcement as well as for victims of fraud. Law firms, when they act as company service providers, should not abuse legal privilege or confidentiality rules, as in the case of Mossack Fonseca.
  4. Finally, I raised the question as to whether whistleblowers should be rewarded as the US legislation provides for.

Watch the two-part debate here:
“Haven Forbid: Panama Papers, how to stop tax dodging?” on France 24


ICC FraudNet
is an international network of independent lawyers who are leading civil asset recovery specialists in each country. Recognized by Chambers Global as the world’s leading asset recovery legal network, our membership extends to every continent and the world’s major economies, as well as leading offshore wealth havens that have complex bank secrecy laws and institutions where the proceeds of fraud often are hidden. Founded in 2004 by the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), the world’s business organization, FraudNet operates under the auspices of the ICC’s London-based Commercial Crime Services unit.

ICC FraudNet is an international network of independent lawyers who are leading civil asset recovery specialists in each country. Recognized by Chambers Global as the world’s leading asset recovery legal network, our membership extends to every continent and the world’s major economies, as well as leading offshore wealth havens that have complex bank secrecy laws and institutions where the proceeds of fraud often are hidden. Founded in 2004 by the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), the world’s business organization, FraudNet operates under the auspices of the ICC’s London-based Commercial Crime Services unit.