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17 Jun 2008 07:42
At the ornate palace of the former Spanish colonial governor, the president of Equatorial Guinea on Monday sat in dark suit and gold and diamond watch and outlined his thoughts on the international conspiracy he believes lay behind a plot to overthrow him four years ago.
Less than a kilometre away, in shackles at Black Beach prison, the Briton who has confessed to his part in the failed coup awaited his day in court.
That reckoning is due on Tuesday, when former SAS soldier Simon Mann faces trial, four years after he was captured and accused of being the mastermind of a plan that involved 64 mercenaries.
It is scheduled to take place in the new conference centre in the middle of the capital, a tired town with rutted roads, muddy pools of rainwater from the morning’s steamy downpour and cracked pavements.
The atmosphere is still thick with paranoia: journalists must enter the court in flip-flops and wearing T-shirts or short sleeves. Watches have to be removed and the government is providing its own pens and notepads.
The target, this time though, might be the accused.
Fear of an assassination plot against Mann permeates even the office of President Teodoro Obiang Ngueme Mbasogo, the leader of the tiny Central African state, which has a population of just half a million.
Speaking in the pale yellow and white residence overlooking the old port, the president sat, composed and unsmiling, in a mahogany bucket chair. He arrived from the upper floors in a glass lift accompanied by an armed soldier, attended by heavily armed soldiers standing in groups outside, while inside were watchful presidential security guards from Morocco.
Softly-spoken, the 66-year-old Obiang explained that he regarded Mann as a prisoner of “high quality and great importance”, which justified the extraordinary security arrangements for the trial. He also hinted that the British mercenary might be shown clemency at the end of his trial this week on charges of plotting to overthrow the government.
Obiang even held out the prospect that negotiations with Britain could lead to Mann serving part of his prison sentence in the United Kingdom.
Mann has already admitted on British television to being the “manager” of the coup.
But Obiang said through an interpreter: “He is revealing very important information on a daily basis which we did not know a year ago. We are not the one to decide the level of [his] cooperation. That’s up to the judges.
“If they do think cooperation has been good enough there might be clemency shown at the end of the case.”
Asked if he favoured the death penalty, he said Mann’s case had attracted international attention and it would be judged under international laws.
In an extraordinary claim, the president said he believed one of the alleged financiers of the coup—the Lebanese trader living in London, Ely Calil—“is trying his very best to ensure that he either kills him or kidnaps him from prison. He doesn’t want Simon Mann to continue revealing issues or charges which can be levelled against him”.
Calil, an oil trader and friend of Peter Mandelson, has always denied being involved.
Obiang said other security measures included Mann’s food being scrutinised—presumably for poison—and access granted only to selected personnel.
Warming to his indictment of the plotters, the president also accused Mark Thatcher, the son of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, of being a key player. “He is known as a dirty player. He lived his life getting involved in all sorts of dubious deals. He was a friend of Simon Mann and expected huge benefits. Mark Thatcher quickly jumped on the boat and became part and parcel of this plot.”
In a plea bargain in South Africa, Thatcher was fined and given a suspended sentence in 2005 for helping to buy a helicopter that he accepted might have been used in mercenary activity.
Obiang also took a swipe at the governments of Spain, the United States and Britain. While he had no concrete evidence that they sympathised with the coup, he said they had very effective intelligence services but never passed on any information about the plot. “We wonder why,” he said.
The trial, which is expected to last three days, comes four months after Mann was secretly extradited from Zimbabwe where he had spent four years in prison along with about 70 other mercenaries from South Africa for illicitly buying arms for the coup attempt.
Down in Black Beach prison Mann must be awaiting his fate with trepidation.
In a nearby cell is his co-conspirator, Nick du Toit, serving 34 years. Despite its notoriety, Obiang says the prison has been renovated to the highest standards and is “the best so far in Africa. If he has to spend time there I do believe he will not complain”.—
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