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British "dog of war" on trial, faces 32 years jail

MALABO (Reuters) - British mercenary Simon Mann, one of Africa’s last “dogs of war”, went on trial in Equatorial Guinea on Tuesday and the prosecution asked he be jailed for nearly 32 years for his role in a failed 2004 coup plot.

British mercenary Simon Mann, one of Africa's last "dogs of war", sits in front of a court in Malabo, June 17, 2008. Mann went on trial in Equatorial Guinea on Tuesday and the prosecution asked he be jailed for nearly 32 years for his role in a failed 2004 coup plot. REUTERS/Ceiba News Magazine/Handout

Looking pale and gaunt in his grey prison uniform, Mann, 55, sat quietly but defiantly as Public Prosecutor Jose Olo Obono described how he plotted to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in the small, oil-rich West African nation.

The defence lawyer for Mann, who is an Eton-educated former special forces officer, said that while his client was part of the coup plot he was a “mere instrument”, not a main organiser. Obiang has ruled the former Spanish colony since 1979.

After the prosecution and defence cases were heard for Mann and eight co-accused, including a government minister and members of a banned opposition party, the trial was adjourned until Wednesday.

The prosecutor said foreign investors had helped organise the coup plot. Among them, he named Mark Thatcher, son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Mark Thatcher, who is not on trial in Malabo, has denied knowing about the plot.

Mann was arrested in Zimbabwe in March 2004 with 70 mercenaries en route to Equatorial Guinea. He was extradited earlier this year after serving a four-year sentence for illegal possession of arms.

Soldiers carrying machine-guns guarded the marble-walled conference centre where the hearing was being held in the steamy capital Malabo. Authorities had expressed fears Mann could be assassinated to prevent him from testifying.

Prosecutor Olo Obono asked the court to sentence Mann to a cumulative jail term of 31 years and eight months on charges of crimes against the head of state, crimes against the government and crimes against the peace and independence of the state.

“The aim of the plot was to replace President Teodoro Obiang Nguema with opponent Severo Moto, without discounting the possibility of assassinating him (the president),” he said.

Under the extradition deal with Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea’s authorities had agreed not to seek the death penalty against Mann, who said in a British TV interview in March that he conspired to oust Obiang.

In rebuttal to the charges, Mann’s defence lawyer Jose Pablo Nvo said his client was not among the principal planners of the coup. “The organisation of the coup could have taken place without Mann. He was a mere instrument,” he said.

“HOPING FOR CLEMENCY”

Mann, reacting to reports the president might pardon him, told Britain’s Channel Four news at the outset of his trial: “Well, obviously I am hoping for clemency.”

Held in Malabo’s notorious Black Beach prison, Mann nevertheless said he was being well treated and was given a glass of wine with lunch. “It is very civilised,” he said.

The prosecution case accused Mark Thatcher of being part of the organisation of the coup, along with a group of investors led by London-based millionaire Eli Calil. Calil, who made his fortune in Nigeria’s oil sector, denies any involvement.

Thatcher was accused of paying the equivalent of $300,000 to be used mainly to purchase a helicopter to transport Moto from exile in Spain to Malabo, once Obiang was overthrown.

The prosecution said Calil invested some $2 million in the coup attempt and was its main financier.

Thatcher, who was arrested in 2004 by South African police on suspicion of bankrolling the plot, said he thought he was financing the helicopter for an air ambulance service.

He was released after pleading guilty to breaking South Africa’s anti-mercenary laws and he paid a fine.

Tuesday’s trial was conducted in Spanish without translation and was briefly halted when the presiding judge ordered Mann’s leg irons removed. Mann, who does not speak Spanish, sat with his hands resting on his lap, his chin held high.

Asked by reporters if he thought he was getting a fair trial he replied “No comment”.

Journalists and diplomats were allowed in. But reporters had to leave cameras, mobile phones, notepads and pens outside.

London’s Guardian newspaper quoted President Obiang as saying there was the possibility of negotiations to allow Mann to serve part of his prison sentence in Britain.

The arrest of Mann, who served in Britain’s elite Special Air Service (SAS) regiment, ended the career of one of the last prominent “dogs of war” still active in Africa.

Mann helped found two security firms that became bywords for mercenary activity across Africa in the 1990s.

Eleven other men are already serving sentences in Equatorial Guinea in connection with the alleged plot.

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

Additional reporting by Peter Graff in London

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