Verdict expected in Zim 'mercenaries' trial

A Zimbabwe magistrate is expected to hand down verdicts on Friday when the trial resumes of 70 suspected mercenaries held on charges of plotting a coup in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea.

The men, who include Briton Simon Mann, are accused of being at the heart of a conspiracy that allegedly includes Mark Thatcher, son of former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

Mark Thatcher, a friend and neighbour of Mann’s, was arrested at his Cape Town home on Wednesday and charged under South Africa’s Foreign Military Assistance Act, which bars mercenary activity, for allegedly bankrolling the coup plot.

He denied the charges and was released on bail.

Judgement against Mann and his alleged accomplices comes in the same week as the trial of 18 other suspected coup plotters commenced in Equatorial Guinea.

South African businessman Nick du Toit this week admitted in a Malabo court to giving logistical support to the alleged coup. He said he was hired by Mann.

In Harare, defence lawyer Jonathan Samkange said on Thursday that the events taking place in Equatorial Guinea and South Africa would have “no bearing whatsoever” on his clients’ trial.

“My clients are not facing any charges in relation to coups,” he said.

Zimbabwe, unlike South Africa, does not have laws that cover mercenary activities planned on foreign soil.

The 70 suspects have instead had to be charged under local laws covering security, firearms, aviation and immigration offences.

But the families’ fears that the men would be extradited to Malabo to face coup charges there appeared to be put to rest at the weekend when the government said it would not hand over the men to Equatorial Guinea.

Home Affairs Minister Kembo Mohadi was quoted in The Herald as saying that Zimbabwe had turned down a request by Equatorial Guinea to have the men extradited to the central African country.

A second defence lawyer, Alwyn Griebenow, said he was confident the magistrate would hand down a “not guilty” verdict against his clients.

“I’m quite sure that he’s going to hand down judgement [on Friday] and we expect him to find our clients not guilty, based on the evidence we have presented,” Griebenow said.

If convicted some of the men could face a 10-year jail sentence.

The alleged coup plotters, who were all travelling on South African passports, were arrested on March 7 at Harare International airport where their plane had landed to pick up weapons, allegedly to stage the coup in Equatorial Guinea.

They deny the charges, claiming they were on their way to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to guard diamond mines.

The 70 suspects include 66 passengers aboard the plane, two weapons experts on the ground who accompanied Mann to the airport to inspect the arms consignment, and three crew members.

The sixty-six passengers have been charged under Zimbabwe’s security laws for “conspiracy to possess weapons”, a charge they deny.

Mann, who has his own lawyer, pleaded guilty to attempting to possess dangerous weapons in Harare, but denied having purchased more than 180 000 dollars’ worth of firearms illegally.

The three crew members face minor charges for breaching Zimbabwe’s immigration and aviation laws. - Sapa-AFP

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