PARIS (Reuters) - The United Nations' cultural and science body UNESCO handed out a prize sponsored by the president of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea on Tuesday, defying campaigners' calls not to do so because of corruption allegations against Teodoro Obiang.
France and other European countries boycotted a ceremony in Paris to award the prize, unimpressed by a decision to change its name to remove any reference to the president himself.
Three scientific researchers, from Egypt, Mexico and South Africa, working on vaccine development, food scarcity in Africa and parasitic diseases won $100,000 each in prize money.
A statement by seven rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, called the award "shameful and utterly irresponsible" and warned that the UNESCO risked tarnishing its credibility.
President Obiang, who had been scheduled to come for the ceremony, did not attend. It was also skipped by UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova, who had publicly voiced her opposition to the prize.
Despite calls to abandon it, the governing council of Paris-based UNESCO voted by 33 to 18 with six abstentions to approve awarding what was originally called the "UNESCO-Obiang prize" but renamed the "UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences".
Obiang has ruled the oil-rich former Spanish colony for more than three decades, making him the longest-serving African leader following the demise of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. Rights groups have long accused his government of corruption.
Authorities in France, Spain and the United States are investigating Obiang and family members on suspicion of corruption and money-laundering on a grand scale, and questions hang over the source of the prize's $3 million endowment.
Obiang's government says the prize is intended to contribute to efforts in scientific research targeting diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Rights groups said it was designed to improve his family's standing on the global stage and has been funded using embezzled public funds.
"We have elements that we have handed over to the Paris prosecutor and which make it extremely likely that this prize has once again been financed with public money," William Bourdon, lawyer for Transparency International, said on Monday.
Last week, French magistrates issued an arrest warrant for Obiang's son, Teodorin, on suspicion of using illicit wealth to finance a lavish lifestyle and real estate purchases in France. He faces similar charges in the United States, where he owns property worth tens of millions of dollars.
Teodorin's lawyer has rejected the corruption accusations.
Equatorial Guinea said it would nominate Teodorin a permanent adjunct delegate to UNESCO last October and he says this confers on him diplomatic immunity. UNESCO, however, said it has not received any documentation to this effect.
In February, a raid by French police on a building in Paris belonging to Equatorial Guinea revealed million of euros of artworks, jewelry and fine wines - in addition to a nightclub and hairdressers.
(Reporting by Daniel Flynn and Thierry Leveque; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)