Mercenary gang goes on trial for plotting revolution.

Africa's largest mercenary trial in recent history began yesterday at a Zimbabwean maximum security prison as hundreds of soldiers patrolled the forbidding walls and razor wire outside.

The 70 accused men struggled into a makeshift courtroom inside Chikurubi jail in leg irons and handcuffs. Their alleged leader, Simon Mann, an old Etonian and former SAS officer, was chained to another prisoner.

All wore thin, tattered shorts and shirts - the regulation uniform of prison khaki that provides scant protection from the winter cold. Mann's hair has grown to his shoulders behind bars.

The men were detained after landing at Harare airport four months ago and are accused of conspiring to depose the government of 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 and if convicted they face penalties ranging from fines to five years in prison. But what they most fear is being extradited to Equatorial Guinea where they could be executed.

About 50 members of the men's families gathered at the prison outside Harare carrying parcels of dried foods, ketchup and lavatory paper.

Local reporters allowed into the prison said wives wiped away tears as the suspects shuffled in to the hearing.

In the aftermath of their arrest in March, Guinean state radio urged all citizens to be on the alert for suspicious foreigners. The authorities, who are notorious for torturing prisoners, promptly rounded up 15 South Africans in Malabo, the capital. One, Nick du Toit, has made a televised confession.

The Zimbabwean court assembled more than two hours late. Stephen Musona, the state prosecutor, immediately asked for an adjournment until today. Francois Joubert, the leading defence lawyer, raised no objection and the hearing ended after five minutes.

The adjournment prolongs the ordeal of the relatives. "You don't expect anything," said one. "You don't hold your breath. It changes every day."

The case has been continually delayed since the men were arrested after landing in a Boeing 727 hired by Mann.

Prosecutors say the aircraft stopped in Harare to collect weapons from Zimbabwe's state-owned defence industry. But instead of receiving their arms, the men were arrested.

Ronnie Kasrils, South Africa's intelligence minister, has confirmed that his agents tipped off their Zimbabwean counterparts before the plane touched down.

During pre-trial hearings, prosecutors claimed that Mann made a 1 million deal with Equatorial Guinea's exiled opposition leader, Severo Moto, to bring him to power.

Mann, who holds South African and British citizenship and lives in Cape Town, has been involved with soldiers of fortune in various African wars since 1989. He was expressionless during the opening hearing and has apparently passed his captivity reading the works of Shakespeare. None of his relatives were present.

The Zimbabweans mounted a large security operation to guard against any attempt to rescue the men, all of whom are South African except for Mann. Five armoured personnel carriers patrolled the prison's perimeter throughout the morning.

South Africa's constitutional court is due to hear an urgent appeal for the accused, excluding Mann, to be extradited to face trial at home.

Legal sources said that defence and prosecuting lawyers had drawn up an agreed statement of facts, which would see all the accused admitting the offences under Zimbabwean law in return for light sentences.

[Source: By Peta Thornycroft in Harare and David Blair, Africa Correspondent, Telegraph, London, UK, 22Jul04]

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