Mobutu v SA Cotoni

Date29 décembre 1988
CourtCivil Tribunal (Belgium)
Belgium, Civil Court of Brussels (Attachment Jurisdiction).

(Staes-Polet, President; Madame Das, Greffier)

SA Cotoni

State immunity Head of foreign State Property Immunity from attachment and execution Whether extending to property of Head of State's wife and children

State responsibility For debts State-owned corporations Corporation controlled by President of foreign State Whether President may be sued for debts of corporation

Expropriation Compensation Provision for payment of compensation following nationalization of foreign-owned property Policy of Zairianisation Transfer of assets to Zaire corporation controlled by President of Zaire Attempt to secure compensation payable by corporation to former shareholders Attachment of personal assets of President in Belgium Whether President personally liable for payment of compensation The law of Belgium

Summary: The facts:In 1973 a policy of Zairianisation was embarked upon by the authorities in Zaire. Amongst the foreign-owned property expropriated was a ranch owned by SA Cotoni, which was transferred to a Zaire company in which President Mobutu held a large personal stake. The ranch was then granted by the company to the President in his personal capacity. By a law of 1978 the Republic of Zaire recognized a right to compensation for all those whose property had been expropriated since 1973, the compensation to be paid by the party who had been granted the property in question. SA Cotoni applied to the Belgian courts in 1988 and obtained the conservatory attachment of immovable property in Belgium owned by President Mobutu and his family. The President and his family instituted objection proceedings before the Civil Court of Brussels, seeking to have the attachments vacated.

Held:The attachments were unfounded and should be vacated.

(1) The immunity enjoyed by foreign Heads of State in Belgium was based upon customary international law and not on any specific text. Such immunity extended only to the Heads of State themselves and not to their wives and children.

(2) Whilst it was clear that President Mobutu and his family's private interests were closely involved in the policy of Zairianisation, it could not therefore be deduced that they were personally liable to pay compensation under the law of 1978, since the debt in question was clearly the responsibility of a company properly constituted under the law of Zaire. There could be no question of lifting the corporate legal veil and confusing...

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