70 go on trial in Zimbabwe over alleged coup plot

Seventy men led by a former SAS officer go on trial in Zimbabwe today charged with offences related to an alleged coup plot in Equatorial Guinea.

The suspected mercenaries could be jailed for life in Zimbabwe, but are said to be more concerned at the possibility of extradition to Equatorial Guinea and execution.

Simon Mann, 51, the former British soldier who allegedly masterminded the plot, and his 69 co-accused are due to be tried at the maximum security Chikurubi prison near Harare.

They are charged with immigration and aviation offences and possession of dangerous weapons, the result of their capture at Harare airport in March, when their chartered Boeing 727-100 landed to collect assault rifles and mortars.

More than a dozen alleged accomplices were detained at the same time in Equatorial Guinea, an oil-rich dictatorship in west Africa, which thanked Zimbabwe for helping to thwart an attempt to overthrow the president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

The detainees deny the charges and say they were on their way to the Democratic Republic of Congo to guard mines.

"The idea that some 70 or 80 men could mount a successful coup against any government ... amounts to Boys' Own propaganda," a lawyer for Mr Mann said last week.

The group, of mostly former soldiers who fought South Africa's apartheid government, had South African passports but it is understood Mr Mann, a scion of the Watney Brewing empire, invoked his British citizenship to fight the case. Intriguingly, several people with links to the Conservative party have been drawn into the affair, including Mark Thatcher, a neighbour of Mr Mann's in the Cape Town neighbourhood of Constantia.

In a letter from Chikurubi prison on March 31, Mr Mann told his wife, Amanda, and his legal team: "Our situation is not good and it is very urgent. They [the lawyers] get no reply from Smelly and Scratcher [who] asked them to ring back after the Grand Prix race was over!

"We need heavy influence of the sort that ... Smelly, Scratcher ... David Hart and it needs to be used heavily and now. Once we get into a real trial scenario we are f****d (his asterisks)."

Scratcher is understood to be Mr Thatcher and Smelly, Ely Calil, the Chelsea-based oil billionaire accused by Equatorial Guinea of helping to organise the coup. David Hart was Mrs Thatcher's unofficial adviser during the miners' strike and served as special adviser to Michael Portillo and Malcolm Rifkind in subsequent Tory administrations.

Another establishment name now linked to the case is Lady Thatcher's former spin doctor, Tim Bell, who is now "advising" Mr Mann's friends.

Lord Bell said yesterday as far as he was aware neither Mr Thatcher nor Mr Hart were investors in Mr Mann's business and were not involved in the alleged coup.

"As far as Ely is concerned, we made a statement as far back as March which we just have kept on repeating: he is not involved in any way."

Lawyers for 69 of the men this week went to South Africa's constitutional court to try to force the government to extradite the men to South Africa.

Pretoria has refused to make such a request, saying mercenaries have destabilised Africa too often and deserve to be punished. But it did not rule out pleading for clemency if the men were sent to Equatorial Guinea and sentenced to death. The court reserved judgment yesterday.

Lawyers for the men said Equatorial Guinea had applied for their extradition.

[Source: Rory Carroll in Johannesburg and Jamie Wilson, The Guardian, London, UK, 21jul04]

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