South African seizure


The arrest of superyacht Blue Shadow in Cape Town last month seemed a simple case of a South African court exercising its judicial powers following a lawsuit. But it has revealed a tangled web of claims and counterclaims, with Equatorial Guinea allegedly threatening to seize South African ships, aircraft and citizens working in the country.

It was thought that Blue Shadow was owned by Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the vice president of Equatorial Guinea. He is (no doubt, coincidentally) the son of the president who has ruled since 1979. The vessel’s registered owner, Marshall Islands-registered company Maritime Support, said it is considering legal action against the “unlawful arrest” of the yacht.

The case began with South African businessman Daniel Janse van Rensburg who won R40m ($2.7m) in damages against Obiang in June 2021. This followed a South African court ruling that van Rensburg was unlawfully imprisoned and tortured when his business deal in Equatorial Guinea failed. Obiang appealed. Last month the High Court overthrew the appeal and the sheriff of Cape Town East, Xolile Aron Ngesi, seized the yacht.

However, the sheriff has told Superyacht Investor that on Saturday (February 25th) the yacht was released after a local law firm, Fairbridges Wertheim Becker, filed a lawsuit against the seizure. “Blue Shadow was indeed released from arrest subsequent to an issue of a release warrant by the High Court of Cape Town after a settlement agreement was reached [between the law firm and the court],” said Ngesi. Fairbridges Wertheim Becker declined to comment.

South African newspaper Vaal Weekblad reported Obiang had threatened to confiscate South African assets and close Equatorial Guinean airspace and waters if the yacht is not released.

Another report in Independent Online claimed that two South African citizens had been detained in Equatorial Guinea on allegedly fabricated drug charges days after the yacht was seized as a negotiation tactic for the yacht’s release. However, an official at the South African Embassy in Equatorial Guinea told Superyacht Investor this was not correct.

he arrest of the superyacht was the result of Van Rensburg successfully suing Obiang for torture and wrongful imprisonment. The South African was imprisoned in Equatorial Guinea for 549 days after the launch of an airline went wrong. Van Rensburg spent 423 of those days in the nation’s notorious Black Beach prison.

He visited the country to close the deal after working with local politician and uncle to Obiang, Gabriel Mba Bela for several years to launch an airline. Van Rensburg says that Mba Bela ran out of money and demanded a refund for what he had already invested.

Then van Rensburg claims Mba Bela called Obiang, who arranged for the police to arrest him. The businessman was taken to a prison and “handcuffed to a rail in one of the rooms in a dungeon”. He was later thrown in a cell with 30 inmates where he says he was tortured.

After spending several days in the cell, van Rensburg was released after being forced to sign a document acknowledging that he received money from Mba Bela in respect of a business deal from which he wanted to renege. He was jailed again for two days and then taken to a court where a judge found him not guilty of any wrongdoing. Van Rensburg then took refuge in the South African Embassy where he remained for over a month. When he tried to leave the country, he was arrested again.

The South African said he saw prisoners being beaten, stabbed and executed by firing squads. He reported that guards would drink and then shoot each other. He said: “A fact of life in that prison is that everybody expected to die at any time.”

It was not until 2015, when Obiang and Mba Bela were both out of the country, that van Rensburg said he was able to escape Equatorial Guinea. In his civil case, a clinical and forensic psychologist testified that van Rensburg suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder and panic disorder. In the years following his escape, van Rensburg said that even hearing a gate close would send him into a state of panic.

This is not the first ruling against Obiang. In 2014, US authorities seized a $30m mansion in Malibu, California and other assets, alleging they had been bought with “the proceeds of corruption”. Swiss prosecutors also seized 11 cars belonging to him two years later, which were sold at an auction for around $27m. The UK has also imposed anti-corruption sanctions on the vice president.

Donald Kau, head of Communications at Cape Town’s Victoria & Alfred Waterfront said the yacht arrived at the marina during the early stages of the Covid pandemic. The crew were forced to quarantine and the yacht went into the dry dock for repairs.

The biggest question is why Obiang moved Blue Shadow to Cape Town when he had already lost a civil case?

The government of Equatorial Guinea did not answer SYI’s questions. And we are not planning to visit anytime soon.

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