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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 January 2005, 14:01 GMT
Relief of nervous Sir Mark

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News

After months of discussions and negotiations, Sir Mark Thatcher's court hearing lasted just a few minutes as a plea bargain saw him admit to attempting to finance an alleged coup in Equatorial Guinea.

In past appearances here Sir Mark has sauntered down the long road leading to the Cape Town High Court greeting journalists, but on Thursday his car pulled up outside the door and he quickly rushed past the expectant press pack.

Sir Mark is surrounded outside court
Sir Mark played with worry beads in court
He went straight into court one and into the dock for the morning hearing, which was only scheduled late on Wednesday.

He seemed very nervous and uncomfortable as he sat in the dock, smartly dressed with a colourful handkerchief poking out of his top pocket - his hands constantly fiddling with a string of worry beads.

The details of the agreement between his lawyers and the prosecution were briefly outlined - a four-year sentence suspended for five years and a 265,000 fine.

The judge asked Sir Mark if he understood the agreement and he seemed agitated as he stood and answered impatiently that he was happy with the plea bargain.

As part of the deal, it seems Baroness Thatcher's son will turn state witness as the South African investigations into the alleged coup plot in Equatorial Guinea continue.

His former friend and neighbour in Cape Town Simon Mann figured quite prominently in the court document outlining the details of the bargain - and an explanation of his dealings.

The stress of the charges have no doubt taken their toll, both personally and from a business perspective
The former Etonian and SAS captain is currently in prison in Zimbabwe after being convicted of attempting to buy weapons from the state.

Sir Mark appears to have turned on him, stating quite clearly that Simon Mann was involved in "mercenary activities".

The case revolved around a helicopter Sir Mark paid for - he said it was for an air ambulance project, but admitted he did find out ahead of time it was to be used in the coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea.

The helicopter never actually used, but under South Africa's anti-mercenary laws, intent is sufficient.

Sir Mark briefly consulted with his lawyers before leaving - he issued a statement emphasising he was "not involved in the attempted coup... but he should have exercised more caution."

'No price too high'

On the way out of the High Court Sir Mark stopped briefly to address the media.

"There is no price too high for me to pay to be reunited with my family," he said, "and I'm sure all of you who are husbands and fathers would agree with that."

He then jumped in his car and sped off back to his house in the plush Cape Town suburb of Constantia.

As part of the bail conditions he had to report every day to the police in Cape Town, and his passport was held. Now he is hoping to fly to the US to be reunited with his family.

The stress of the charges have no doubt taken their toll, both personally and from a business perspective.

And it's not necessarily all over yet - the authorities in Equatorial Guinea are still keen to question Sir Mark.

Watch Sir Mark Thatcher's reaction to the sentence

Profile: Sir Mark Thatcher
12 Jan 05 |  UK Politics
Mark Thatcher's 'coup' role
12 Jan 05 |  UK Politics


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