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Last Updated: Monday, 21 February 2005, 17:43 GMT
Can Mark Thatcher get a US visa?
By Neil Arun
BBC News

Having escaped prison and possible extradition to Equatorial Guinea on charges relating to the recent coup attempt, Sir Mark Thatcher faces a new challenge - entering the US.

Mark Thatcher outside court in South Africa
Thatcher admits having known some of the coup plotters

The son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has reportedly applied for a US visa that will allow him to join his wife and children.

But it may not be granted. Whoever assesses his visa application will have to consider the four-year suspended prison sentence imposed on Sir Mark under South African anti-mercenary laws.

US law prohibits anyone convicted of "a crime involving moral turpitude" - in effect, any serious criminal act - from entering the country.

And according to Rick Schwartz, a top adviser on US immigration policy, Sir Mark's conviction could "score pretty high on the scale of moral turpitude".

Sir Mark pleaded guilty to breaking the law by financing the purchase of an aircraft destined for use in the planned coup in Equatorial Guinea.

He told the court he learnt the aircraft would be used by mercenaries before the deal had been finalised, but claimed he had no idea of the coup plot.

Either way, given the public nature of his trial, Sir Mark is playing on a very "sticky wicket", Mr Schwartz told the BBC News website.

Expired visa

Times have changed for Sir Mark since the 1980s, when his mother was prime minister and he lived in the US, enjoying a lucrative career in the car industry, during which he met and married his American wife, Diane.

His hopes of returning to the US have been dealt a severe blow by the South African judiciary.

Mark Thatcher's wife
Sir Mark's US citizen wife, Diane, could help his visa application

Spared from having to go to prison, he received a suspended four-year jail sentence, agreeing to pay a hefty fine and provide prosecutors with information about the attempted coup.

He told reporters outside the court: "There is no price too high for me to pay to be reunited with my family and I am sure all of you who are husbands and fathers would agree with that."

Publicly, however, he brushes aside suggestions that he is planning to leave for the US, despite persistent reports to the contrary in British newspapers.

What would be his chances of a family reunion on American soil - if that is indeed what he plans?

According to Paul Virtue, a partner at law firm Hogan and Hartson and a former general counsel for the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service, the law will not be any kinder to him because he has not had to serve any of the suspended prison term.

Nor will his history of having lived and worked in the US necessarily work in his favour. Sir Mark's US visa is believed to have expired after his arrest, while his passport was being held by South African police.

Wife's petition

Mr Virtue told the BBC News website that if Sir Mark were his client, he would begin by taking a close look at his "complex immigration history".

He would also carefully study the circumstances of Sir Mark's conviction to see how likely his visa application was to be rejected.

If that likelihood was high, Mr Virtue said he would prepare the groundwork for a possible waiver - an appeal for Sir Mark to be granted a visa, despite his apparent ineligibility.

Waivers are unusual - granted only by the Department of Homeland Security, or formerly, the US Attorney General.

Former British SAS officer Simon Mann in prison in Zimbabwe
Simon Mann, a friend of Thatcher's, was jailed for his coup role

Sir Mark's appeal for a waiver could stress, for instance, that he was not directly aware of the coup plot itself.

Only once it was clear that Sir Mark's US visa application would not be rejected because of his criminal conviction would his wife's US nationality come into play.

Mr Virtue says the coast would then be clear for his wife to file a petition for her spouse to join her in the US.

Burden of proof

But what if US authorities rejected Sir Mark's visa application and, furthermore, rejected his appeal for a waiver?

Would he still be able to visit his wife and children in the US for a shorter period, nominally as a "tourist"?

After all, the UK is one of 27 countries, most of them in western Europe, whose citizens can travel to the US without a visa and stay there for up to 90 days, provided they present a new, "machine-readable" passport at the port-of-entry.

Key dates
25 Aug: Sir Mark arrested in Cape Town
28 Aug: Equatorial Guinea requests international arrest warrant
1 Sep: Baroness Thatcher stands bail of two million rand (167,000)
25 Nov: Trial postponed
13 Jan: Sir Mark fined and sentenced over coup role
18 Feb: Court questions Sir Mark over coup

In theory therefore, Mr Thatcher could rejoin his family simply by showing his passport and stepping aboard a trans-Atlantic flight.

But, cautions Mr Virtue, "if he were my client, I would not recommend it."

He says there is the risk that the South African authorities would have added Sir Mark's criminal conviction to the database accessed by passport scanning machines all over the world.

That could result in him being turned away at the US airport - a potentially embarrassing outcome that could jeopardise any long-term immigration application.

According to Mr Virtue, nor would it be a good idea for Sir Mark to attempt to visit the US by submitting a written application for a conventional short-term visa.

Background checks would uncover his criminal conviction, which could lead to a bar on his entry.

And even in the absence of a criminal record, the visa process would reveal that his wife is a US citizen - thus casting doubt on whether he will really leave the US after his visitor's visa expires.

"Anybody applying for entry to the US is considered to be a possible immigrant," says Mr Virtue, adding that it is up to the applicant to prove this is not the case.

Relieved Sir Mark set for US
14 Jan 05 |  Africa
Thatcher fined over 'coup plot'
13 Jan 05 |  Africa
Mark Thatcher's 'coup' role
12 Jan 05 |  Politics
Profile: Sir Mark Thatcher
12 Jan 05 |  Politics
Mark Thatcher and the Dogs of War
18 Nov 04 |  Business

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