Simon Mann’s road to freedom

How the Old Etonian plotted a coup against Equatorial Guinea’s president, was jailed and then won a pardon

How did Simon Mann end up in jail?
In March 2004, the former SAS officer led a group of 64 mainly South African mercenaries in an attempt to seize control of Equatorial Guinea by overthrowing its president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema M’basogo, and installing Severo Moto, an opposition leader living in exile in Madrid. If successful, Mann was to have received a $15-million reward plus lucrative security contracts. But the coup failed before it got off the ground when the plotters were arrested at Harare airport, in Zimbabwe.

Mann spent four years in Zimbabwe’s notorious Chikurubi jail on remand on firearms and public order charges. Then he was moved across Africa to stand trial in Equatorial Guinea, where he was held at Black Beach prison in Malabo, the capital. In court last year, the Old Etonian confessed to a degree of involvement in the coup attempt but said he had been the “manager, not the architect” of the plot. He was sentenced to 34 years in prison and ordered to pay a £12-million fine.

Why Equatorial Guinea?
Oil, most probably. Production had increased tenfold since the mid-90s, making Equatorial Guinea the third biggest oil power in sub-Saharan Africa, though most of its 500 000 people still live in poverty. Consisting of a few islands and a patch of mainland between Gabon and Cameroon, this tiny West African country was a Spanish colony, gaining independence in 1968. Since then, it has been the subject of a number of coup attempts, including the one against President Obiang, who seized power from his uncle in 1979. His government has been accused of widespread human rights abuses and of ruthlessly suppressing political opposition.

What is the Mark Thatcher connection?
Mann was once a neighbour of the former prime minister’s son in the exclusive Cape Town suburb of Constantia. In a letter from prison before his conviction, Mann wrote to his wife, Amanda, and his legal team: “Our situation is not good and it is very URGENT. They [the lawyers] get no reply from Smelly and Scratcher [who] asked them to ring back after the Grand Prix race was over!”

“Scratcher” is thought to be Thatcher and “Smelly” to be Ely Calil, a Chelsea-based oil billionaire accused by Equatorial Guinea of bankrolling the coup. Both men denied the allegations. In a separate trial in South Africa in 2005, Thatcher was given a fine and a suspended sentence after pleading guilty to unknowingly helping to finance the plot. He has always denied any direct involvement.

Why has Mann been pardoned now?
The presidential pardon said Mann’s release had taken into account his health and his need “to receive regular medical treatment and to be with his family”. It added that he had “shown sufficient and credible signs of repentance and a desire to take his place in society”.

It also stated that the pardon came on the eve of an official visit to Equatorial Guinea by Jacob Zuma, the South African president. Zuma’s office confirmed the visit, taking place on Wednesday night, but was unable to confirm whether South Africa had made representations seeking the pardons, which include those of four South Africans, among them Nick du Toit, Mann’s second-in-command and the leader of an advance party.

Equatorial Guinea is due to hold a presidential election on 29 November. Obiang, who has been in power for 30 years, is widely expected to stand and win. In December 2002 he was re-elected with 97,1% of the vote.

Were other countries implicated?
Mann, who is now 57, claimed that Spain and South Africa, with the endorsement of the then South African president, Thabo Mbeki, had supported the plot. Both countries deny this. South Africa has strong anti-mercenary laws. Mann also claimed that tacit approval for regime change had come from the Pentagon, the CIA and big US oil companies.

Who was paying Mann?
The BBC’s Newsnight television programme revealed the financial records of his companies, showing receipt of $2-million, but the source of this funding has not been traced.

How much did Sir Mark Thatcher know?
Mann claimed in court that his former neighbour was “part of the management team” behind the failed plot and “not just an investor”. Thatcher continues to deny this.

Did Mann strike a deal with President Obiang?
Sources have claimed he agreed to name his co-conspirators in return for an early release. Despite the grim conditions for most in Black Beach prison, Mann has reportedly been treated very well there, eating chicken, steak and vegetables cooked specially for him, and drinking good wine. – guardian.co.uk

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