Trial of Zim 'mercenaries' again postponed

The trial in Zimbabwe of 70 suspected mercenaries accused of plotting a coup in Equatorial Guinea adjourned for a second straight day on Thursday with defence attorneys denying the new delay is linked to a possible plea bargain.

Defence attorney Alwyn Griebenow of South Africa said the hearing was put off to Tuesday at the request of state prosecutors after it was acknowledged that evidence and witness statements need to be "streamlined".

"There is no question of plea bargaining. We are going to streamline the matter to cut down on the number of witnesses and the amount of evidence," Griebenow told reporters.

Magistrate Mishrod Guvamombe, presiding in a makeshift courtroom at the Chikurubi Maximum Security prison outside Harare, adjourned the trial until July 27, the third delay this week.

The trial had been scheduled to begin on Monday, but defence attorneys asked for a postponement to allow them to appeal for the trial to be moved to South Africa, home of most of the suspects.

State prosecutors asked for another adjournment on the first day on Wednesday without giving reasons.

The suspects were detained after landing at Zimbabwe's Harare International airport on March 7 and are accused of conspiring to carry out a coup in the tiny, oil-rich West African nation of Equatorial Guinea with weapons bought in Zimbabwe.

They are charged with violating Zimbabwe's immigration, firearms and security laws. The violations carry a penalty of between 10 years and life imprisonment in Zimbabwe.

According to South African media reports on Wednesday, Zimbabwean prosecutors might have considered a plea bargain under which the suspects would have admitted to some lesser charges in return for lenient sentences and their early release.

Griebenow said prosecutors and defence lawyers are looking at how to cut down on "issues in dispute".

"We should be able to have a trial over one or two weeks. We don't want to be here for a year-and-a-half," he said.

Family members gathered at the prison outside Harare wept as the court adjourned and the prisoners, dressed in khaki prison garb and manacled and handcuffed in pairs, were led back to their cells.

Hundreds of troops and paramilitary police, backed by armoured cars and artillery, ringed the prison complex on Wednesday. Snipers were posted on the roofs of the cell blocks.

Lawyers for the suspects, most of whom have South African citizenship, have asked for the trial to be moved to South Africa, fearing Zimbabwe could extradite them to Equatorial Guinea -- a nation ranked by rights groups as one of the most repressive and corrupt in the world.

Zimbabwe established diplomatic relations with Equatorial Guinea last month. If tried there, the men could face execution. In South Africa there is no death penalty.

Prosecutors allege Equatorial Guinea's Spanish-based rebel leader Severo Moto offered the group $1,8-million and oil rights to overthrow President Theodoro Obiang Nguema in the former Spanish colony.

Most of the suspects are former members of South Africa's apartheid-era military forces.

They deny plotting to overthrow Obiang, saying they were headed to security jobs at mining operations in eastern Congo when they were detained after their aging Boeing 727 landed in Harare on March 7.

In April, Zimbabwe said it had revised its extradition policy to include Equatorial Guinea.

The United States State Department's latest country report on Equatorial Guinea, where Obiang has ruled for 25 years, said "judicial corruption" is widespread and described its prison conditions as "life-threatening".

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights also described torture as "a normal means of investigation" in Equatorial Guinea.

[Source: The Guardian, Harare, Zinbabwe, 22Jul04]

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