Alleged mercenaries seek trial in open court

Published Mar 19, 2004


By Cris Chinaka

Harare - Seventy suspected mercenaries held by Zimbabwe have sought an urgent court order to prevent the state conducting their trial at the prison where they are detained, their lawyer said on Friday.

"We have filed an urgent application with the high court to order that this case be heard in an open court," said Zimbabwean lawyer Jonathan Samkange, whose clients have been charged with plotting to murder the president of Equatorial Guinea.

"We don't accept these arguments from the state that because this is a case involving high security that it should be heard in prison. We want the court to order that it be held in an open court," he told Reuters.

There was no immediate comment from the attorney general's office on the application, which Samkange said might be heard during the weekend or on Monday.

A government official said it was not unusual for cases involving state security to be conducted in a detention centre.

"It is a practice that is found all over the world. What is important is that the trial is fair," the official, who declined to be named, told Reuters.

The men - from South Africa, Angola, Namibia, Democratic Republic of Congo and one from Zimbabwe - were arrested on March 7 after their US-registered Boeing 727 plane landed in Harare and was seized by Zimbabwean authorities.

The men say they were heading to Congo to guard mines. But Zimbabwe maintains they were on a mission to oust President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea and has charged them with plotting to murder him and his bodyguards.

Samkange said on Thursday that the state had laid fresh charges against the 70 under the Foreign Subversive Organisation Act which criminalises activities that seek to overthrow governments of states recognised by Zimbabwe. Samkange said the charge was "obsolete" in the present case.

The state also charged the men under immigration and firearms laws over accusations their plane landed in Harare with a false declaration and that they intended to pick up weapons from state-owned Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI).

These charges attract a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail, although Zimbabwe officials have indicated the men could face more severe penalties - including death - under other charges being considered, including possible charges brought under tough security laws.

Samkange has dismissed the coup charge as "fictional" and questioned whether it can be brought under Zimbabwean law.

Zimbabwe's Public Order and Security Act, enacted in 2002, provides for a variety of charges relating to crimes deemed to threaten state security, and the southern African country's acting chief prosecutor has said other charges might follow.

Equatorial Guinea, sub-Saharan Africa's third largest oil producer, says it has arrested 20 men it says were part of an advance party in the coup plot. It said the operation was funded by foreign powers and multinational firms to put an exiled opposition politician into power.

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