Equatorial Guinea: Human Rights Watch Demands Release of Seriously Ill Political Prisoner

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Human Rights Watch has issued a statement demanding the release of Italian businessman Roberto Berardi from Equatorial Guinea’s Bata Prison following reports that the jailed business partner of Vice President Teodoro Obiang is seriously ill and has been denied access to medical treatment.

“President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mangue of Equatorial Guinea should immediately release an unjustly imprisoned Italian citizen and ensure he gets prompt high-quality medical treatment,” Lisa Misol, a senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch said.

Berardi has been in custody since January 2013 in what Misol said is an apparent effort to prevent him from disclosing information about Obiang’s assets in the United States and France, where Obiang currently faces charges related to alleged money laundering. Berardi has become seriously ill yet has been denied medical treatment.

A June 30 medical report released by Berardi’s family shows that he has developed pulmonary emphysema and typhoid fever in prison. The doctor prescribed medication but, according to his family, prison authorities have not allowed him to have it.

“In Equatorial Guinea, knowing too much about the business dealings of those close to the president can land you in jail,” Misol said. “Roberto Berardi’s long imprisonment in miserable conditions has put his health and safety at serious risk and he should be let out immediately to get medical treatment.”

Berardi has been in custody in Bata since early 2013. According to his family, Berardi’s January 2013 arrest came after he asked his business partner, Teodoro (“Teodorín”) Nguema Obiang Mangue, about a suspicious bank transfer to a US account that was cited as evidence by the United States Department of Justice in a civil complaint accusing Teodorín of laundering the proceeds of alleged corruption.

Teodorín is also the focus of a major corruption investigation in France, which has seized his Paris mansion and other luxury assets. In an apparent effort to grant him immunity from foreign prosecution, his father appointed Teodorín the country’s second vice president, among other posts.

After a brief trial in which his family says no evidence was presented to support the charges of theft of company property and fraud, Berardi was convicted in mid-2013 and sentenced to more than two years in prison. According to his family, Berardi has been subjected to torture, long periods of solitary confinement, inhumane conditions of detention and frequent denial of access to medical attention and legal counsel.

Following international attention to Berardi’s case and concerns about his health and safety, including by the European Parliament and European Commission, President Obiang publicly committed in April 2014 to release him.

Expectations were high that the president would issue a pardon on the occasion of his birthday in June. However, Berardi remains in custody and his lawyer has expressed concern that new charges may be brought to further silence him.

The lawyer, Ponciano Mbomio Nvó, has himself been the victim of intimidation and reprisals. He was suspended from legal practice for two years, until February 2014, as punishment for criticizing the government’s politically motivated prosecution of a different client, according to Human Rights Watch.

The Obiang government previously has jailed a different former business associate of Teodorín that it suspected had leaked information about his controversial business practices. That man, Florentino Manguire, was released under international pressure.
“President Obiang often makes human rights promises he doesn’t intend to keep,” said Lisa Misol, senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “He should keep his word for once and release Roberto Berardi without further delay.”