- Mark Thatcher, the son of Britain's former PM Margaret Thatcher, today in a South African court pleaded guilty to helping finance a coup plot in Equatorial Guinea. The confession of Mr Thatcher marks the first credible evidence of the existence of a coup plot against Dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema as previous confessions were made in the torture chambers of Equatorial Guinea.
The prominent 51-year-old British citizen was soon put in connection with an alleged coup plot against the Equatoguinean dictator in March last year. On 25 August last year, Mr Thatcher was arrested in his mansion outside Cape Town, South Africa, accused of financing a foiled coup in Equatorial Guinea.
An increasing amount of evidence has since that strengthened the case against Mr Thatcher and indicated that this time, Equatoguinean authorities' claims of a coup plot were indeed correct. South African police were able to prove that Mr Thatcher had transferred about US$ 285,000 to the mercenaries that were to execute the operation and had met and talked frequently to them prior to the coup attempt.
Under the threat of being extradited to Equatorial Guinea or being sentenced to a prison sentence in South Africa, Mr Thatcher last week reportedly negotiated a deal with the prosecutor. In exchange for his confession and further cooperation with the court, the British businessman was to avoid prison and extradition.
Today, Mr Thatcher thus appeared at Cape Town's High Court and entered his guilty plea. His lawyers say he was only pleading guilty to "unwittingly" attempting to finance the coup plot by buying a helicopter for the alleged coup plotters. Mr Thatcher claims he thought the helicopter would be used for humanitarian works.
After pleading guilty, he was immediately handed down a five-year suspended prison sentence and a fine of about US$ 560,000. Upon leaving the court, the Briton announced his plans to leave South Africa and reunite with his family in the US as soon as possible. The Cape Town court had not banned him from leaving the country.
The son of Britain's former Prime Minister thus becomes the first person to confess his involvement in the March 2004 coup plot to a court in a democratic country. Earlier, the alleged leader of the mercenary group that had entered Equatorial Guinea, Marc du Toit, had confessed his part in the plot in a court in Malabo, the Equatoguinean capital.
Mr du Toit however confessed under heavy torture. The South African alleged mercenary leader, who has been given a 34-year prison sentence in Malabo, in his August 2004 confession said that the coup plot was masterminded by the British citizen Simon Mann with the knowledge of Mr Thatcher and the governments of Britain and Spain.
The plotters were to install Severo Moto, an exiled Equatoguinean opposition politician, in the Malabo presidency. They were to be rewarded millions of dollars from the newfound oil riches of the central African state. Transcripts of telephone calls between Mr Simon and Mr Thatcher, obtained by the South African police, seemed to confirm the original confession of Mr du Toit.
Mr Mann, who is a Cape Town neighbour and friend of Mr Thatcher, was arrested in Zimbabwe when he and a group of armed men arrived the Harare International Airport from South Africa. According to Zimbabwean authorities, they were on their way to assist Mr du Toit in Equatorial Guinea, but they still claim to have been on their way to guard a mine in Congo Kinshasa. Mr Mann is now serving a prison sentence in Zimbabwe.
Meanwhile, in Equatorial Guinea, the Obiang dictatorship has gained a major diplomatic victory. While the governments and judiciaries of South Africa and several Western powers have had to condemn the coup plot against President Obiang, the Equatoguinean dictator - who himself came to power in a coup in 1979 - now does not have to fear new plots against him financed from abroad for some years.
In South Africa, on the other hand, the plea bargain made today has caused both relief and discomfort. For the Pretoria government, which is obliged to act against coup attempt on African soil, the solution means a way out of a potential diplomatic crisis with Britain. Other, such as the ruling ANC's Youth League, today expressed "shock" at the bargain, saying it was "an abomination and a miscarriage of justice."
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