/ 13 November 2009

Thatcher escapes prosecution for failed Equatorial Guinea coup

Mark Thatcher may never be prosecuted in the United Kingdom for his role in the failed coup in Equatorial Guinea, say senior British law enforcement sources.

Scotland Yard detectives are engaged in a “serious and protracted inquiry” into allegations that, at meetings in London in late 2003 and early 2004, Thatcher, British mercenary Simon Mann and others orchestrated the attempt to oust Equatorial Guinea’s president.

According to the former prosecutor in Equatorial Guinea, detectives from the counter-terrorism command at Scotland Yard visited Mann in prison five times. He is said to have cooperated fully.

The evidence relating to Thatcher’s alleged involvement in the coup is believed to be held in testimonies given to Yard officers by Mann and in documents handed to British police by Equatorial Guinea and held by officials in South Africa.

But as Thatcher has already been convicted in South Africa of paying for a helicopter he suspected might be used for mercenary activity, the likelihood that he could be prosecuted in the UK on the same evidence for a similar offence is slim, say senior legal and police sources.

The sources indicated that the inquiry was hindered by concerns about double jeopardy because of his South African conviction, despite the fact that this took place in a different jurisdiction.

Thatcher was first implicated in the coup attempt in a letter written by Mann and intercepted by the South African police while he was being held in Harare, after his arrest following the failed plot in 2004. Written to his wife in Cape Town, it requested money from the alleged coup financiers, “Scratcher”, his nickname for Thatcher, and “Smelly”, a nickname for the Lebanese-born businessman Ely Calil. Thatcher and Calil deny involvement in the coup attempt.

Other evidence that could be used against Thatcher is the testimony of Crause Steyl, a South African mercenary pilot who was on the plane on the night of the coup. He was never arrested and returned to South Africa, where he struck a deal with the authorities and told them everything he knew.

According to Adam Roberts, author of The Wonga Coup, rumours about Thatcher’s involvement had been swirling for some time, but with Steyl’s plea bargain evidence, the South Africans arrested Thatcher in a move watched with disbelief by the world’s media.

Initially Thatcher told the authorities he had thought the £288 000 (about R3,5-million) was to be used to fund an air ambulance for Africa’s poor. But he accepted that at some point before the coup attempt he suspected the helicopter might be used for a mercenary plot.

Thatcher was convicted in January 2005, fined £266 000 (about R3,25-million) and given a four-year suspended sentence. He left South Africa shortly afterwards.

The third plank of evidence that could be used against him is Mann’s testimony in interviews with Scotland Yard detectives, who visited him in Black Beach prison after his trial ended in Equatorial Guinea last July.

Mann implicated Thatcher, as he had done at his trial, when he said Thatcher was “not just an investor. He came on board completely and became part of the management team.”

But the statements Mann made in Equatorial Guinea are tainted by the threat of ill-treatment or even death in prison.

Equatorial Guinea is still seeking to see Thatcher in court. —