Coup accused could face 86-year prison terms

Published Nov 26, 2004


By Estelle Shirbon

Malabo - An Equatorial Guinea court is due to give its verdict on Friday on 14 suspected foreign mercenaries accused of plotting a coup in the tiny country, sub-Saharan Africa's third biggest oil producer.

Prosecutors have demanded the death penalty for Nick Du Toit, a South African accused of leading an advance party of mercenaries bent on ousting President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. The verdict was originally expected at 9am but court officials said it would now be announced around 1pm.

Obiang has ruled Equatorial Guinea, split between volcanic islands and a mountainous jungle mainland in central Africa, since 1979 when he seized power in a coup against his uncle.

Many foreign critics say Obiang and his allies have pocketed much of the country's recently acquired oil wealth, and human rights groups say abuses are rife - charges Obiang dismisses.

Du Toit at first admitted he had taken part in a coup plot, but later retracted his confession in court, saying it had been extracted by torture. Several of the men on trial with him also said they were tortured.

State prosecutor Jose Olo Obono denied their allegations, saying all their rights had been respected.

Obono has named a group of foreigners as financial backers of the planned putsch, including Mark Thatcher, son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher, who denies any involvement, was arrested in South Africa on August 25 on charges related to the alleged plot. A court there on Thursday delayed his trial until April.

Thatcher had also been due to answer questions about the case from Equatorial Guinea in South Africa on Friday but a Cape Town magistrate postponed that hearing until February 18.

The prosecutor says the plot aimed to replace Obiang with exiled opposition politician Severo Moto, with backing from an international web of financiers lured by Equatorial Guinea's lucrative offshore oil deposits.

Moto, who lives in Spain, denies all involvement in the plot. The prosecutor has asked for him to be sentenced to death in absentia and has called for 102-year jail terms for eight members of Moto's self-proclaimed government in exile.

Besides Thatcher, the prosecutor named several other British or London-based people as alleged financiers of the coup plan.

Malabo last week said it wanted an explanation from London after Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the British government had first heard about the plan in late January - more than a month before it was foiled.

The Malabo trial has been under international scrutiny, with diplomats, foreign journalists and observers from Amnesty International and the International Bar Association following every court session.

Seven other South Africans and six Armenians, all arrested at the same time as Du Toit, are on trial with him. The South Africans could face 86-year prison terms while the Armenians could be jailed for 26 years.

Five Equatorial Guineans are also defendants in the same trial. The prosecutor has requested jail terms for two of them, and has dropped charges against the other three.

All of the accused told the court they were innocent.

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