The son of Equatorial Guinea's long-ruling president is under investigation in connection with kidnapping and torture allegations that observers say will damage the president's attempts to improve his international reputation.
Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, 80, has ruled the oil-rich former Spanish colony since 1979, and after winning a sixth term in office in November, observers said the president appeared eager to shake off the persistent allegations, which he has denied.
This could be jeopardized, however, after Spain's High court, the country's top criminal court, announced it would investigate one of Obiang's sons, Carmelo Ovono Obiang, along with the president's security director, Isaac Nguema Endo, and Security minister Nicolas Obama Nchama.
They are under scrutiny in connection with the alleged kidnapping and torture of two Spanish citizens, Feliciano Efa Mangué and Julio Obama. Equatorial Guinea's vice president, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, has strenuously denied the accusations and accused Spain of "interfering" in his country's sovereignty.
The two Spaniards, who oppose the Obiang government, were allegedly tricked by the three men into meeting in South Sudan in 2020. They were then kidnapped and taken to Equatorial Guinea, where they were allegedly subjected to torture.
Two other dissidents, who are Equatorial Guinea nationals living in Spain, were kidnapped at the same time, said a court source who did not want to be named as is normal practice in Spain. The four were sentenced to between 60 and 90 years for allegedly attempting to stage a coup against President Obiang, the Spanish newspaper El Pais reported.
Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, writing on Twitter Tuesday, said that Madrid sought to "tarnish" Equatorial Guinea's reputation.
"These terrorists were detained by Sudanese authorities and extradited to Equatorial Guinea under an "international arrest warrant," he wrote.
Spain sought to "humiliate, interfere with and disrespect our sovereignty."
The court, which deals with major criminal cases, opened the investigation after receiving a complaint from relatives of the victims. Spanish police say they believe President Obiang is ultimately responsible for the alleged incident, according to El País newspaper, which said the men were flown to the central African nation aboard a presidential aircraft.
The three men were accused of "repeatedly participating in torture sessions," according to court papers seen by VOA.
Obiang has ruled the country since taking power in a military coup in 1979, 11 years after independence from Spain. Political dissent has been suppressed and the country's oil wealth has remained in the hands of an elite few, watchdogs claim.
Freedom House, a non-profit U.S. government-funded research body into political freedom, said in a report published in 2022 that Equatorial Guinea "holds regular elections but the voting is neither free nor fair. The current president … has led a highly repressive authoritarian regime since 1979.
"The government frequently detains the few opposition politicians in the country, cracks down on civil society and censures journalists. The judiciary is under presidential control and security forces engage in torture and other violence with impunity."
Carmelo Ovono Obiang, 44, who is married to a Spanish woman, obtained Spanish residency in 2020. He owns a series of homes in Marbella, Barcelona and Toledo and runs a business, El País, reported. Police reportedly spotted him entering a spyware shop in Madrid. Police tried to detain him on December 29, but he left the country to return to Equatorial Guinea.
In September, President Obiang ended the death penalty in civil courts in a move that observers took to mean he was keen to improve his international image. Two months later, he won 97 per cent of the vote in a general election. Two other parties, Convergence for Social Democracy and Party of the Social Democratic Coalition, contested the election but won no seats in parliament.
Marta Colomer is Amnesty International's senior campaigner for West and Central Africa, which covers Equatorial Guinea. She said the alleged case represented the "tip of the iceberg" of human rights abuses by the Obiang government.
Colomer said a 2019 joint trial of 130 people resulted in all being imprisoned without proper judicial procedure. Many of those who were jailed had been tortured first to extract confessions, she said, basing her allegations on information from relatives and human rights groups within the West African state.
"This case is not an exception but the norm. This Spanish case will make it more difficult for Obiang to improve his international image. He knows how difficult it is to live isolated," she said in a telephone interview from Dakar, Senegal.
"It is the only country in Africa where they speak Spanish, and it is isolated from the French and English-speaking countries in the continent. Obiang needs the support of some countries so that the international community believes that the human rights record is improving but it is not the case."
Tutu Alicante, a human rights lawyer with Washington-based EG Justice, a non-profit group that promotes transparency in Equatorial Guinea, said the Spanish investigation would embarrass Obiang.
"It is this source of bad publicity, which damages [Obiang's] reputation. He wants to be invited to meetings in Europe, in Brussels and the U.S. It is cases like this which damages his smokescreen of banning the death penalty," he told VOA.
He said that the death penalty was still in force in military courts and many people were sentenced after trials there. Alicante said European states needed to take more legal action against members of Obiang's family, who enjoy luxurious lives in France, Spain and other European countries.