Thatcher facing 15 years for plot to oust dictator.

Mark Thatcher last night issued a defiant denial of any involvement in a plot to overthrow the government of a west African state which could land him in prison for 15 years.

It came at the end of a day in which he was arrested in his pyjamas, charged with funding the foiled coup, robbed in his cell and finally released on bail of £175,000.

Now under house arrest, the son of former Prime Minister Lady Thatcher faces jail unless he can clear his name of charges of violating South Africa’s anti-mercenary law in connection with the alleged coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea.

"We have evidence, credible evidence and information that he was involved in the attempted coup," said Sipho Ngwema, a South African police spokesman. He said that South Africa would not be used as a springboard for coups in Africa and elsewhere.

Authorities in Equatorial Guinea claim that a group of plotters, led by Old Etonian-turned-mercenary Simon Mann, were hoping to exploit the country’s massive oil reserves by ousting the president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

But Thatcher, who inherited a baronetcy from his father, Denis, was insistent that he was innocent of any involvement in the alleged coup attempt.

"I am innocent of all charges made against me. I have been and am co-operating fully with the authorities in order to resolve the matter," he said in a statement released by his spokesman Lord Bell last night. "I have no involvement in an alleged coup in Equatorial Guinea and I reject all suggestions to the contrary."

The coup was allegedly foiled in March when Zimbabwean authorities seized a plane carrying Mann’s men. Mann is one of 70 defendants held in Zimbabwe while another 19 people are on trial in the Equatorial Guinea capital, Malabo. One other defendant died in custody in suspicious circumstances.

One of those defendants, South African arms dealer Nick du Toit, yesterday testified that he attended a July 2003 meeting in South Africa with Thatcher and Mann but claimed Thatcher only showed interest in buying military helicopters for a mining enterprise in Sudan.

"This was a normal business deal," said du Toit, who faces the death penalty for his alleged role in the plot.

Equatorial Guinea has taken steps toward issuing an international arrest warrant for Thatcher, 51. "The president has indicated that applications for the extradition of any person involved could well be pursued. It is expected that all steps will be taken to bring to justice those responsible, however highly placed they may be," a lawyer said.

But Equatorial Guinea’s justice minister, Ruben Mangue, played down suggestions that the country may seek to extradite him. He said: "Let’s first give an opportunity to the South African authorities and the South African legal system to handle the situation."

It was a bizarre day, even by the standards of a man who once spent six days lost in the Sahara during the Paris Dakar rally and whose previous financial dealings have come under the scrutiny of parliament.

First, Thatcher was caught in his pyjamas when police from South Africa’s FBI-style Scorpions unit raided his palatial home in the wealthy Cape Town suburb of Constantia at 7am. He asked to take a shower before investigators began searching his records and computers for evidence linking him to the alleged plot.

Hours later he was driven away by police for an appearance at the Wynberg Magistrate’s Court. But while waiting in a crowded holding cell, he was accosted by his fellow prisoners and relieved of his shoes, jacket and mobile phone. The thieves, however, had nowhere to go and police recovered the stolen items.

He thanked magistrate Awie Kotze, who released him on £175,000 bail, and he was then driven home by police. He was placed under house arrest and has until 8 September to post his bail.

His lawyer, Peter Hodes, said the businessman, who has lived in South Africa since 2002, was arrested on suspicion of providing financing for a helicopter linked to the coup plot. "He will plead not guilty."

Equatorial Guinea has alleged that Thatcher and British and South African oil broker Eli Calil and other foreigners helped fund the alleged coup attempt.

There have also been allegations that paperwork linked to the case shows a payment of more than £100,000 from Jeffrey Archer to a company owned by Mann just days before the alleged coup attempt. Calil is a former adviser to Lord Archer and a personal friend, but the peer’s lawyers say Lord Archer has no involvement in the affair.

The 19 defendants on trial since Monday in Equatorial Guinea were charged with attempting to assassinate a head of state, illegal possession of arms and explosives, terrorism, treason and endangering the public.

South Africa, which has sought to crack down on the involvement of its nationals in foreign mercenary activities, has been involved in the investigation of the alleged plot against Mr Obiang since the start. Its intelligence services tipped Zimbabwean authorities off to the arrival of a plane carrying 67 of the suspects in Harare on 7 March. They were allegedly en route to Equatorial Guinea.

The men were arrested in Zimbabwe’s capital with three other suspects - including the alleged ringleader, the former British special forces member Mann - and were charged with seeking to procure weapons from the state arms manufacturer. The 70 defendants maintain they were on their way to Congo to provide security at a mining operation.

President Obiang’s 25-year regime is at the centre of an oil boom in the Gulf of Guinea. The region is estimated to hold 10 per cent of the world’s oil reserves.

Yesterday, police said Thatcher was being "relatively cooperative" with investigators.

Thatcher and his twin sister Carol are the only children of Lady Thatcher and Denis Thatcher. Yesterday, Carol Thatcher said she was shocked at her brother’s arrest.

[Source: Gethin Chamberlain, Diplomatic Corresponent, The Scotsman, Scotland, 26Aug04]

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