Briton jailed for 34 years for Equatorial Guinea coup plot

MALABO Mon Jul 7, 2008 1:12pm EDT

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MALABO (Reuters) - British mercenary Simon Mann was jailed on Monday for 34 years by a court in Equatorial Guinea for a failed 2004 coup plot in which he said the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was also involved.

Mann, 56, an Eton-educated former army special forces officer, was sentenced to a prison term of 34 years, four months and three days for conspiring to topple President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in the small, oil-producing West African state.

Mann, wearing a grey prison uniform, stood impassively as the sentence was read out by presiding judge Carlos Mangue in the heavily guarded courtroom in the capital Malabo.

Another defendant, Lebanese businessman Mohamed Salaam, received a jail sentence of 18 years, while four Equatorial Guinean nationals were given terms of 6 years each. Another was jailed for one year and one other was acquitted.

Mann was also ordered to pay a fine and compensation to the Equatorial Guinea state totaling around $24 million.

The long jail sentence against the British mercenary, which could keep him in prison for the rest of his life, was harsher than the just over 31 years requested by Equatorial Guinea's public prosecutor during Mann's trial in Malabo last month.

Seeking leniency, Mann had apologized and portrayed himself as a pawn of powerful international businessmen he said were trying to seize power in Equatorial Guinea, sub-Saharan Africa's third largest oil producer. Obiang has ruled there since 1979.

Judge Mangue said the long sentence was justified because of the "seriousness of the crimes" and the weight of evidence.

Describing himself as a mere "employee", Mann said the real masterminds behind the coup plot were business tycoons including London-based Lebanese millionaire Eli Calil and Mark Thatcher, son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Both Calil and Thatcher have denied any role in the conspiracy and are not in Equatorial Guinea.

But Mangue ordered the public prosecutor, Jose Olo Obono, to seek to bring them to justice. The prosecutor said his country's government would try to seek their extradition.

FURTHER PROSECUTIONS

Mann was sentenced on three counts: for making attempts against the life of Equatorial Guinea's president, against the government and against the peace and independence of the state.

Mann has been held at Malabo's notorious Black Beach prison since he was extradited from Zimbabwe this year. His arrest ended the career of one of the last prominent "dogs of war" still active in Africa.

He had served a four-year sentence in Zimbabwe for illegal arms possession after being arrested there in 2004 along with 70 mercenaries en route to Equatorial Guinea aboard a plane.

Public Prosecutor Olo Obono told Reuters the next step for Equatorial Guinea was to try to prosecute those whom Mann's court testimony had identified as the alleged main financial backers of the plot, namely Calil and Mark Thatcher.

"That's a job that's ongoing," he said, adding Equatorial Guinea's government had circulated through the international police agency Interpol an arrest request for the two men.

Mark Thatcher, whom Mann said was "part of the management team" behind the coup, was reported to be living in south Spain, while Calil was spending his time between London and Lebanon.

Mark Thatcher, arrested in 2004 in South Africa after he allegedly invested $350,000 to buy a helicopter to be used in the 2004 coup operation, said he thought he was funding an air ambulance service. He was freed after pleading guilty to breaking anti-mercenary laws and he paid a $450,000 fine.

During his trial in Malabo last month, Mann testified that the governments of Spain and South Africa had given a "green light" to the 2004 conspiracy, which had aimed to replace Obiang with exiled opposition leader Severo Moto. The Spanish and South African governments have denied Mann's allegations.

(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/)

(Writing by Pascal Fletcher and Ingrid Melander)

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