- The trial against 14 foreigners, allegedly plotting a "mercenary invasion to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema," started today in Equatorial Guinea's capital Malabo. One of the suspects, a German citizen, already has died in detention and no translators were present as the trial started. Even Zimbabwean authorities have now decided against extraditing alleged "mercenaries" to Malabo.
The eight South Africans and six Armenians were arrested in Malabo on 6 March. They were charged with conniving with 70 South African "mercenaries" who were arrested 24 hours later in Zimbabwe as they were allegedly on their way to Equatorial Guinea to mount an invasion. The "mercenaries" held in Zimbabwe however claim they were on their way to a mine in Congo Kinshasa (DRC).
An Amnesty International observer at the Malabo trial reported that all 14 were charged with conspiracy to overthrow President Obiang, who has ruled the former Spanish colony since he killed his uncle, President Macias Nguema, in a coup 25 years ago. In addition, Nick du Toit, a South African accused of leading the advance group inside Equatorial Guinea.
Amnesty spokesman George Ngwa noted that treason carried a mandatory death penalty in Equatorial Guinea. However, President Obiang said in a radio broadcast on Sunday that none of the accused would face execution. Observers hold this statement to be a reaction to the international spotlight on Equatorial Guinea during this trial, which involves only foreign citizens.
Mr Ngwa told the UN media IRIN that at today's opening session of the trial, the charges were read out to the accused in Spanish. There were no translation facilities available and the accused were not invited to plead. The proceedings were then suspended until later this week when the prosecution was due to cross-examine the accused, he added. The court was expected to provide translators at that stage, the Amnesty spokesman said.
A senior official at the Ministry of Information in Malabo, told IRIN: "The mercenaries on trial in Malabo are mainly accused of planning a coup d'état against the head of state and of the illegal possession of arms and ammunition. They risk a prison term of five to 15 years if convicted."
Equatoguinean authorities originally arrested 15 foreigners in connection with the alleged "mercenary" invasion plot, but one of them, German citizen Gerhard Eugen Nershz, died a few days later. The government said he died from an attack of cerebral malaria. Amnesty quoted eye witnesses who had seen the German's corpse as saying he was tortured to death. Torture is a standard procedure at Equatoguinean detention centres.
Mr Du Toit, the alleged leader of the "mercenary" group inside Equatorial Guinea, is a former South African military officer who was once closely connected to the now defunct South African security company Executive Outcomes. The company allegedly supplied private guards to multinational oil and mining companies and mercenary combatants to several governments, including Angola and Sierra Leone.
The six Armenians on trial are the flight crew of an Antonov 12 cargo plane belonging to the small company Tiga Air, which operated in several countries in Central Africa.
The group of suspected mercenaries arrested in Zimbabwe was detained after their Boeing 727 jet landed in Harare on the night of 7 March to take on arms and ammunition purchased from the Zimbabwe state arms factories. The group, all of whom held South African passports, were led by former British army officer Simon Mann, who co-founded Executive Outcomes in South Africa in the late 1980s.
Executive Outcomes was officially dissolved at the end of 1998 after South Africa passed a law banning mercenaries from operating from its soil, but the company's former staff have resurfaced in several other private military companies such as Sandline and Northbridge Services. All those arrested in Harare said they were on their way to Congo Kinshasa, being contracted to guard mines.
The Zimbabwean government, which has announced plans to try them locally, has accused the group of preparing to invade Equatorial Guinea to overthrow President Obiang. The Equatoguinean has sought their extradition, but Zimbabwean authorities this weekend decided against this.
Zimbabwe's official 'Herald' newspaper yesterday quoted Home Affairs Minister Kembo Mohadi as saying that a request by a delegation from Equatorial Guinea was turned down. "We said it was not possible since it will be against international laws," Minister Mohadi said. The two countries earlier sought to reach a mutual extradition deal, but this has obviously failed.
Meanwhile, the government of Equatorial Guinea keeps accusing Severo Moto, an opposition leader who heads a government-in-exile based in Madrid, of being behind the "mercenary invasion plan".
Malabo further claims that the "plot" was financed by Greg Wales, a London-based businessman with previous links to Executive Outcomes, and Elie Khalil, an international oil dealer of Lebanese origin, who has close links with President Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo Brazzaville and who has been implicated in a bribes scandal involving the French oil company Elf.
The article is partly based on IRIN reporting, via MisaNet.
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