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Will Equatorial Guinea's dictator finally get his UNESCO award?

At about this time last year, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, of Equatorial Guinea, saw his ambition of sponsoring a UNESCO award for life sciences in his own name thwarted, a casualty of a well-organized international campaign by human rights advocates that embarrassed U.N. officials and member states into putting the plan into deep freeze.

But Obiang, who ascended this year to the presidency of the African Union, has thawed the bid, securing a statement from the African body backing the plan to set up the UNESCO-Obiang International Prize for Life Sciences, which would award $300,000 prizes to scientists who develop innovations that improve living standards in Africa.

A UNESCO committee was scheduled to deliberate on the plan this afternoon, but has deferred consideration until Tuesday.

The deliberations at UNESCO couldn't have come at a worse time for Obiang. On Wednesday night, French police seized at least 11 luxury supercars, including a Bugatti Veyron and Maserati MC12, from a Parisian residence owned by the Obiang family near the Arc de Triomphe, according to reports in the French press. The seizure grew out of a French criminal investigation that was opened as a result of a complaint by two anti-corruption groups, Association Sherpa and Transparency International France, that three African heads of state, including Obiang, had engaged in "unjust enrichment," according to the Open Society Justice Initiative, which has been tracking Obiang's financial holdings.

A French court, meanwhile, dismissed a liable suit by Obiang against another French non-profit organization, Terre Solidaire, which had accused the leaders of three African countries, including Obiang, of engaging in corruption.

The renewed effort to secure the UNESCO prize has been met with a strong response from a coalition of EquatoGuinean exiles, international human rights activists, including Human Rights Watch, and American lawmakers, who have accused Africa's longest ruling leader of corruption and human rights abuses. They have taken aim at UNESCO and the African Union.

"It will be a sad day for two vital global organizations -- UNESCO and the African Union -- if the little noted African Union courtesy resolution passed at last summer's AU summit saddles UNESCO's cultural and human rights mission to President Obiang's shameful record," said Ken Hurwitz, a senior legal officer for the Open Society's Justice Initiative.

Earlier this week, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-NJ) both wrote to the UNESCO executive director, Irina Bokova, to ask her to reject the prize. "I am writing to urge UNESCO to not award the Obiang Prize," Leahy wrote, noting that a $3 million contribution to the award fund is "likely...the product of corruption or theft from the public treasury."

"I join those who believe it would be a serious mistake for UNESCO to associate itself with a prize named for the leader of an authoritarian government widely criticized for corruption and human rights abuses," he added. "It would be very unfortunate if UNESCO were to compromise its reputation and leadership."

Equatorial Guinea's U.N. ambassador, Lino Sima Ekua Avomo, did not respond to a request for comment today, but the country has vigorously defended its record in the past, saying that it has not engaged in corruption or systematic human rights. Some EquatoGuinean officials told Turtle Bay that the allegations of corruption and repression by Obiang were "distortions" that would easily be corrected by traveling to his country to witness large-scale investment on behalf of the people.

"This president has invested enormously in improving infrastructure, the social services, the education system, the health system. It is this president that has moved the country from having a totally destroyed school system to now having a university that are graduating students," presidential advisor Agapito Mba Mokuy told me last year. Mokuy said that this is the first time an African government has funded a prize in the research sciences in UNESCO. "Some people may not be used to having African countries donating funds in science," he said. But he said the prize "is a very important gesture for the member states" at UNESCO, which overwhelmingly backed the award. "This is a humanitarian action on behalf of the president."

Critics say, however, that Obiang has used the vast wealth of Equatorial Guinea, one of Africa's largest oil-producing countries, to finance an extravagant lifestyle, including estates in the United States and Europe, for his relatives and closest allies.

"The small nation has one of the highest per capita income levels, however this wealth primarily goes to serve Obiang, his family and the ruling elites, and not to help the nearly 80 percent of the population living below the poverty line," Payne wrote on Thursday. "Instead of fighting infant mortality, Obiang's son, currently the agriculture minister in his father's government, commissioned a super yacht costing almost three times what the country spends annually on health and education."

UNESCO had initially agreed to establish the UNESCO-Obiang award in 2008 with the goal of "improving the quality of life." UNESCO's judges had actually even selected an award winner in a closed door meeting in May 2010, but a decision to award the prize was suspended in October, following a massive pressure campaign by anti-corruption and human rights groups.

The African Union summit, hosted by Obiang in the capital of Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, last May, issued a statement urging UNESCO to implement the decision to award the prize, noting that it is "the first African program prize in the history of UNESCO." Earlier this month, UNESCO's African member-states unanimously approved a statement calling for the implementation of the award.

UNESCO Executive Director Irina Bokova for the first time openly appealed to the EquatoGuinean leader to abandon his effort to establish the prize, the Associated Press reported from Paris. "As generous as he was in offering this prize, I think he should make the same proof of generosity" by withdrawing it, Bokova told foreign delegates at an executive board meeting.

We'll soon find out whether Obiang finally gets his prize. Stay tuned.

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