Mercenary laws could land 62 men in trouble

By Gershwin Wanneburg

Sixty-two South Africans freed by Zimbabwe may face anti-mercenary charges at home after more than a year in jail over a foiled coup in Equatorial Guinea, officials said on Monday.

The men's lawyer, Alwyn Griebenow, told the national broadcaster that he expected his clients to be charged and to receive suspended sentences. South African prosecutors said it wanted to try the masterminds of the coup plot.

The country has strict laws against mercenary activity.

"If they are convicted in our courts of law, I am of the opinion that a term of imprisonment will be imposed, which will be suspended for a lengthy period," Griebenow told SAfm radio.

Equatorial Guinea sentenced 11 foreign nationals in November to between 14 and 34 years on charges of trying to overthrow the country's president.

Zimbabwe prosecutors linked those charges to the case involving the 62 South Africans.

They were released on Saturday after serving sentences for weapons and immigration offences. Arrested after their plane was impounded in Harare in March last year, they were not directly convicted with taking part in the plot.

South African media reported that one of the 62 had been held back in Zimbabwe while his nationality was clarified.

South African officials could not be reached on Monday to comment on the group's likely fate, but a National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson said the authority hoped the men could provide information on others involved with the plot.

"We think that these men were footsoldiers. We think that there are people who were much higher up in the hierarchy that were planning this attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea and those are the people that we would want to bring to justice in South Africa," spokesperson Makhosini Nkosi told SAfm.

All 62 were travelling on South African passports when they were detained but many were originally from Namibia and Angola - including former members of South Africa's apartheid-era 32 Battalion, which recruited locals for bush fighting in Angola.

Griebenow said they had little alternative to security work, such as the lucrative contracts with private companies that have drawn thousands of military trained South Africans to Iraq.

"At this stage there is no offence committed if the guys go to Iraq, if they go do security work there," Griebenow told a phone-in show on SAfm.

After their arrest the men denied their involvement in any conspiracy, saying they had been en route to the Democratic Republic of Congo to do security work on mines.

Their sentences expired last week but their release was delayed due to security issues surrounding their deportation.

Mark Thatcher, son of Britain's former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, pleaded guilty in South Africa earlier this year on charges relating to the same plot in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. He avoided jail in a deal with prosecutors.

The leader of the group arrested in Zimbabwe, Briton Simon Mann, was jailed for four years on weapons charges. Two South African pilots are serving out their last two months in jail.

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