DAKAR Equatorial Guinea President Teodor Obiang Nguema has promoted his farm minister son - wanted in France for alleged money laundering - to vice president in charge of national defense and state security, a government statement said on Tuesday.
The promotion was part of a cabinet reshuffle and reform of the constitution which critics of the oil-rich Central African state believe is aimed at ensuring a future handover of power to Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, widely known as "Teodorin".
An initial statement on the government website described Teodorin's new post as deputy prime minister, but the page later gave his function as "First Vice President in charge of National Defense and State Security". The US-based PR company employed by Equatorial Guinea confirmed the latter title as the correct one.
"This move allows President Obiang to increase Teodorin's standing and experience in the government, and could very well represent a stepping stone for Teodorin to eventually assume the presidency," said Joseph Kraus, program and development director at Equatorial Guinea-focused rights group EGJustice.
Ignacio Milam Tang, who has been prime minister since 2009, was appointed to a similar-sounding new role of "Vice President of the Nation".
A French prosecutor last month approved an investigator's request for an international arrest warrant for Teodorin over suspicions he had bought real estate in France with public money embezzled from Equatorial Guinea.
Teodorin has denied wrongdoing and says his huge wealth - which has allowed him to purchase luxury real estate in Paris and Malibu, a private jet and a stable of exotic sports cars - was amassed legitimately through successful business dealings.
French investigators seized the sports cars last September, but a U.S. judge ruled last month that prosecutors there would need to come up with more proof of wrongdoing to seize certain of his U.S. assets.
Lawyers for Teodorin have warned France the legal action could hurt trade and diplomatic ties between the two countries.
The 69-year-old Obiang has been in power for 33 years. Despite the country's oil wealth, much of the population lives in poverty and it was ranked among "the worst of the worst" civil liberty abusers in democracy group Freedom House's 2011 survey.
"The move by President Obiang to elevate his son to an even higher post, despite the pending international arrest warrant against Teodorin on corruption charges, is yet another sign that Equatorial Guinea suffers under unaccountable leadership," said Lisa Misol of Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have also condemned Equatorial Guinea's leadership for the jailing earlier this month of a member of the political opposition, Wenceslao Mansogo Alo.
(Reporting by Mark John and Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Tim Pearce)