By Vicky Buffery
PARIS (Reuters) - Rights groups said on Monday UNESCO's decision to award a science prize sponsored by the president of Equatorial Guinea was "shameful and utterly irresponsible".
The United Nations' cultural and science body was due to hand out the prize on Tuesday, defying campaigners' calls not to do so because of corruption allegations against President Teodoro Obiang and members of his family.
"It is shameful and utterly irresponsible for UNESCO to award this prize, given the litany of serious legal and ethical problems surrounding it," said a statement signed by seven groups, including Human Rights Watch.
"Beyond letting itself be used to polish the sullied image of Obiang, UNESCO also risks ruining its own credibility."
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 $3 million in prize money.
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's government says the prize is intended to contribute to efforts in scientific research targeting diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Rights groups said the prize was designed to improve the family's standing on the global stage.
William Bourdin, lawyer for Transparency International, said the prize may have been financed with public money.
"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," he told a news conference in Paris.
Obiang was unlikely to attend the award ceremony, Bourdin added.
Last week, French magistrates issued an arrest warrant for Obiang's son, Teodorin, on suspicion of using ill-gotten 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 rejects claims of corruption as false and says raids on his property are illegal.
Teodorin was appointed a permanent adjunct delegate to UNESCO for Equatorial Guinea last October and says he has diplomatic immunity linked to his post.
In February, a raid by French police on a building in Paris belonging to Equatorial Guinea revealed million of euros of artworks, jewellery and fine wines - in addition to a nightclub and hairdressers.
(Additional reporting and writing by Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)