10 25 2014
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PARIS (AP) -- UNESCO's director-general appealed to the organization's executive board Friday to reject a life sciences prize to be named after Equatorial Guinea's president, who has been accused of human rights violations.

At a lavish summit in Equatorial Guinea earlier this year, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema persuaded the African Union to pass a motion calling on UNESCO to approve the life sciences prize in his name.

The $3 million prize was first proposed in 2008 and UNESCO initially agreed to create it, only to suspend it as outrage erupted over the provenance of the money and accusations of abuses by Obiang against his people.

UNESCO chief Irina Bokova said Obiang should withdraw the prize in his name as "proof of generosity" toward the organization. Leading rights activists and cultural figures have urged UNESCO to reject the prize. A vote on the issue Friday was considered unlikely.

The prize is also pitting the African members of UNESCO against numerous Western states and many scientists around the world who have objected.

"The stakes are very high here," Bokova said. "I believe that sometimes we have to take courageous decisions."

She appealed to the "wisdom of the board members" to end what has become several years of dissension at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization over the creation of the prize.

The president of the Africa group at the body, Jean-Marie Adoua, said the 13 African nations represented at UNESCO cannot simply reverse their support of the prize because they are following instructions from their heads of state.

"We've received instructions from our heads of state, what should we do? We're under an obligation to respect our heads of state," Adoua said. He asked the executive board to "respect its own decisions" regarding the prize.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu is among those urging UNESCO to reject the prize. A letter signed by him and other leading authors and activists from around the world says they are "deeply troubled by the well-documented record of human rights abuse, repression of press freedom and official corruption that have marked his (Obiang's) rule."

The tiny nation located on the coast of Central Africa spent several times its yearly education budget to build the new $800 million resort to house those attending the summer summit.

Outside of an 18-hole golf course, a five-star hotel, and a spa, the country built a villa for each of the continent's 52 presidents in attendance. Each one came with a gourmet chef and a private elevator leading to a suite overlooking the mile-long artificial beach that had been sculpted out of the country's coast especially for them.

Together, the Arab and African delegations account for 20 out of 58 votes on the board at UNESCO, whose stated mission is the promotion of peace and human rights through cultural dialogue. Thirty votes are needed for the measure to pass; fewer if some governments abstain.

Equatorial Guinea Information Minister Jeronimo Osa Osa Ecoro told The Associated Press by telephone that claims of theft, corruption and abuse by Obiang and his entourage are unfounded.

Obiang seized power in a coup 32 years ago after toppling the former leader who was then executed. A U.N. expert toured the country's prisons in 2008 and determined that torture is systematic, including using electroshocks through starter cables attached to detainees' bodies with alligator clips.

Another concern is the provenance of the $3 million that Obiang has said he will donate to endow the prize. The Obiang family is accused of pilfering the nation's oil wealth.

French authorities seized several luxury cars allegedly belonging to Obiang's son in Paris this week as part of a probe into the assets of three African leaders prompted by complaints by anti-corruption groups.

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Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.

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