British mercenary on trial in Equitorial Guinea

The trial of Ex- SAS soldier and mercenary Simon Mann started Tuesday in the sub-Saharan African country. He is charged with masterminding a coup plot against the country's President Obiang, widely perceived as being abusive and corrupt.


The trial of British mercenary Simon Mann on charges of plotting a 2004 coup in Equatorial Guinea opened Tuesday under heavy security with the chief prosecutor calling for a 30-year sentence.

The prosecutor told the court that Mann was the mastermind of a group of people who "wanted to topple the legal government".

The charge was potentially a capital one, but Attorney General Jose Olo Obono said waiving the death penalty had been a pre-condition of Mann's extradition from Zimbabwe earlier this year.

Dressed in a grey prison outfit with blue stripes on the back, Mann looked nervous and appeared to have lost some weight as he arrived at the trial venue -- a conference center in the capital Malabo.

There was a strong police presence and journalists were not allowed to take cameras or notebooks into court. Rubber sandals were handed out to people whose shoes were deemed suspicious.

Other well-connected Britons such as Mark Thatcher, the son of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and London-based millionaire businessman Ely Calil, have been linked to the failed coup bid.

Mann -- the heir to a brewing fortune who was educated at Eton and served in Britain's elite Special Air Services (SAS) after training at the prestigious British military academy Sandhurst -- was secretly extradited to Equatorial Guinea this year from Zimbabwe.

The 55-year-old had been arrested in 2004 at Harare's international airport with 61 alleged accomplices when their plane touched down en route to Equatorial Guinea.

The authorities there accused them of trying to pick up arms before teaming up with a team led by a South African, Nick du Toit, to launch a coup against Equatorial Guinea's President Teodor Obiang Nguema.

Du Toit has since been jailed for 34 years in Equatorial Guinea and Mann spent four years in prison in Zimbabwe before being extradited to stand trial in Equitorial Guinea.

In the 1990s, Mann had set up a security consultancy called Executive Outcomes to protect businesses in conflict zones and allegedly earned millions from Angola, one of Africa's top oil producers, to guard oil installations against rebel attacks.

He also set up another private security firm, Sandline International, which was soon being linked to a 10-year civil war in the west African country of Sierra Leone, one of the most brutal conflicts in modern history.

In an interview with Britain's Channel 4 News from his prison cell in Malabo, Mann acknowledged having been involved in the coup plot but said that he had not been the mastermind.

He accused Spain and South Africa, and named Calil as having been involved.

Equatorial Guinea has also issued an international arrest warrant for Mark Thatcher, accusing him of having been one of those behind the plot.

President Obiang, who is accused by critics of stifling democracy and trampling on human rights and of frittering away the country's new-found oil riches with his family members and aides, has said he will not seek vengeance.

Obiang told Channel 4 the trial was not "an act of revenge."

The country's attorney general, Jose Olo Obono told AFP that "the court will prove that there was an attempted coup masterminded by Simon Mann and other businessmen, including Ely Calil."

Equatorial Guinea minister Fortunato Ofa Mbo, the Secretary General to the Government Presidency, is also facing trial for allegedly keeping secret the information he had on a businessman's bid to destabilise the country.

Ofa Mbo, who at the time was the fisheries minister, had allegedly helped  Calil.

President Obiang has been in power in Equatorial Guinea since he overthrew his own uncle, Francisco Macias Nguema, in 1979. Under his iron rule the country became one of sub-Saharan Africa's biggest oil producers but few have benefitted from the petrol boom. Oil revenues are a state secret.

Human rights groups say Obiang is one of the worst abusers of human rights in Africa.

In last month's parliamentary election, the president's ruling party and his allies obtained 99 of 100 seats in elections, according to the official results.

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