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African leader's son fights to keep U.S. assets

By Jeremy Pelofsky

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The son of the leader of Equatorial Guinea asked a court to dismiss attempts by the Obama administration to seize some $71 million worth of his assets, denying charges that they were obtained with allegedly corrupt funds taken from his country.

Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the son of longtime President Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mbasogo, argued he had not violated U.S. or Equatorial Guinea law and called the corruption allegations "character assassination" against him and his country.

U.S. authorities in October filed to seize a $30 million Malibu, California, oceanfront home, a $38.5 million Gulfstream jet, a Ferrari worth more than $500,000 and dozens of pieces of pop singer Michael Jackson memorabilia worth almost $2 million.

They argued that Obiang obtained the items with money corruptly taken from the impoverished African nation through a variety of alleged schemes, including requiring companies to pay so-called taxes and fees to him as well as to make donations to his pet projects and then took those funds for his own use.

Obiang serves as minister of forestry and agriculture, a job that pays him almost $82,000 a year, under his father who has ruled for more than 30 years. Billions of dollars in revenue come into the country from its large oil, timber and natural gas resources.

"This forfeiture action is not only misplaced, but fatally flawed," Obiang's lawyers wrote in a motion filed late on Friday that requested a U.S. judge in California to dismiss the forfeiture attempt.

They said that Obiang was granted a 20-year concession to harvest timber in the country in the mid-1990s and that made him a "very wealthy man" by 2005 when he bought most of the assets.

Further, there was insufficient detail to prove that the assets were paid for with so-called fees and taxes allegedly collected for personal gain, the filing said.

"There is thus no basis to establish, much less by a heightened showing, that Minister Nguema's assets can be traced to illegally gotten gains sufficient to justify civil forfeiture," Obiang's lawyers wrote.

Obiang's lawyers also included an April 2005 letter from the U.S. Justice Department that said at the time they had no reason to block, seize or forfeit assets he planned to use to buy a Gulfstream jet and that there was no evidence that the funds to be used would violate U.S. money-laundering laws.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment because the litigation is pending. U.S. authorities have taken custody of the memorabilia, the Malibu house and the Ferrari, but so far they have not yet been able to get custody of the plane.

Obiang's lawyers asked for a hearing to be held as early as February 27 on their motion to dismiss the forfeiture complaint.

(Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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