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Former Bongo Beauty Busted

Gabon President Omar Bongo Ondimba celebrates his 40th anniversary in power December 2, 2007 in Libreville. His son now holds power there.

A former Miss France has been charged in a long-running inquiry over alleged ill-gotten wealth by Gabon's former strongman ruler Omar Bongo and several of his children, prosecutors said Wednesday.

Sonia Rolland has been charged by French authorities with receipt of embezzled public funds for accepting from Bongo an apartment worth 800,000 euros ($752,000) in the chic "16th Arrondissement of Paris" in 2003.

Along with the former "Miss France" beauty contest winner, French prosecutors also charged four of Bongo's children with embezzlement and corruption on suspicion that they knowingly benefited from a fraudulently-acquired empire of real estate and other assets worth at least 85 million euros.

It includes apartments and buildings in Paris and the Mediterranean city of Nice as well as luxury cars, several of which have been seized by French authorities.

In February an investigating judge determined that much of the money for the purchases came from "undue commissions" paid by French energy firm ELF, now a part of TotalEnergies, to exploit Gabon's vast oil reserves.

French publication Liberation says Rolland, now an actress, told investigators last year that the apartment was a gift for her patronage of beauty contests in Africa -- she was born in Rwanda.

The "official" buyer of the apartment was a French decorating firm that had a Gabonese subsidiary with a local bank account, into which Bongo's associates would deposit suitcases full of cash, Liberation published in March 2021.

Rolland's attorney, Charles Morel, told AFP "At no point did she know the source of the funds nor the financial arrangements."

He added more denial, saying "My client was 22 years old, she was coming out of a period in which she had been thrown into a world she knew nothing about, neither its codes nor its sordidness."

Bongo, Gabon's second elected president, held that office in his fist from December 1967 until his death in June 2009. His son Ali won election as his replacement in August of that year.