Page last updated at 16:39 GMT, Monday, 7 July 2008 17:39 UK

Mann changes his tune at trial

By Will Ross
BBC West Africa correspondent

Simon Mann consults with his lawyer during his trial in Equatorial Guinea, 19 June 2008
Simon Mann has been held in Equatorial Guinea since February

In a world used to expensive international court cases that drag on for years, Simon Mann's trial was brief.

This was partly because he admitted playing a part in the 2004 plot to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema - a plan that was brought to an abrupt end when Mann and about 60 other mercenaries were arrested at Zimbabwe's Harare airport.

Four years in prison there on arms offences was not the end of Mann's nightmare.

In February he was extradited to Equatorial Guinea in the middle of the night.

The oil-rich country was desperate to get its hands on Mann, and Zimbabwe was in dire need of petrol. A fuel deal was done.

Wine over lunch

Mann seems to have struck up a cosy relationship with some members of the regime he tried to overthrow.

While in Malabo's Black Beach prison, he has apparently been paid frequent visits by Security Minister Manuel Nguema Mbo and the two have drunk wine over lunch.

The minister said Mann had lent him a copy of The Wonga Coup - an account of the plot by journalist Adam Roberts.

Throughout the trial in a conference centre in the capital, Malabo, Mann and his recently appointed lawyer aimed to convince the three judges that his role had been minimal, while shining the light on his alleged co-plotters.


In an attempt to receive a lenient sentence, the former British soldier-turned-mercenary apologised profusely, sang like a canary, said others behind the coup should be put on trial and warned that they could strike again.

Wearing a grey prison uniform and at times clutching his stomach due to an apparent hernia, Simon Mann zeroed in on three names; Sir Mark Thatcher, the son of the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Eli Calil, a London-based businessman of Lebanese origin and Severo Moto, who is Equatorial Guinea's best-known opposition politician.

Sir Mark has already been fined and given a suspended sentence in South Africa in connection with the same coup attempt.

Sick and tired of the fact that every time mercenaries made the news in Africa there were South Africans amongst them, the government in Pretoria put in place a new law in 1999 banning its citizens from mercenary acts abroad.

'Air ambulance'

It was under this law that Sir Mark was prosecuted at a time when he was living in one of Cape Town's most affluent suburbs.

In 2005, following a plea bargain, Sir Mark was given a fine and a suspended sentence after admitting to paying for the use of a helicopter.

He has always maintained he knew nothing of a coup plot and said he thought the helicopter was to be used as an air ambulance.

In the plea bargain statement, he said he came to realise the helicopter was to be used for mercenary activities before the deal was finalised.

File photo of Mark Thatcher outside court in South Africa, 13 January 2004
Mark Thatcher has always said he was an unwitting conspirator

In court in Malabo, Mann said Sir Mark played more than a financing role and alleged that he was "part of the management team."

Eli Calil has also denied any involvement in the coup attempt.

Mann told the black-robed judges that the millionaire was the main organiser, known as the "Cardinal".

Attorney General Jose Olo Obono now says Sir Mark and Eli Calil are the next targets for prosecution.

"It may be a long haul but we will bring the others to justice," he told the media.

For the authorities in Equatorial Guinea perhaps the "biggest fish" is Severo Moto.

From his exile in Spain he has denied any role in the bungled coup.

He has already been tried in absentia and given a 62-year sentence.

Mann said installing Mr Moto in power was part of the plan.

Bicycle invasion

Mann is not the first mercenary to end up on the wrong side of the law for attempted coups.

Perhaps the best known was the Frenchman Bob Denard, who launched four coups in the Comoros islands between 1975 and 1995, and once launched an invasion by bicycle in what was then the Belgian Congo.

Denard, who died last October, only spent a few months in jail - perhaps in part because of tacit support from France.

While Simon Mann told the court in Malabo that Spain and South Africa had given the green light for the 2004 coup, Bob Denard had this to say about his relationship with France.

"Often, I didn't exactly have a green light from the French authorities, but I went on the amber."

Mann blames himself for his predicament and said he regretted not pulling the plug on the adventure weeks before they were caught.

One contributing factor to the plot's failure could have been haste due to a change of government elsewhere.

Severo Moto (file picture 30/04/05)
Equatorial Guinea has sought Severo Moto's extradition

In Spain elections were looming in March 2004 and Mr Moto was on good terms with the Spanish government that it is alleged would have recognised him in power. Time was running out.

Spain and South Africa have both denied involvement.

On the fourth day of the trial, Simon Mann told the court that in 2005 Equatorial Guinea's attorney general had visited him in prison in Harare and had offered a deal which his lawyers had prevented him from accepting.

The deal, he later told reporters, was to give information in return for going home with no charge.

Equatorial Guinea may be pleased to see the back of this trial.

It has been suggested that authorities hoped the attention would provide an international boost for a country that many people struggle to find on a map.

It would be cast as the victim of a greedy, arrogant, colonial-minded plot.

The problem is that journalists find it difficult to cover such a story without mentioning the country's appalling human rights and corruption record, and by the time the vast oil wealth has been contrasted with the alarming poverty, the politicians running Equatorial Guinea would perhaps prefer the country to slink back into obscurity.

It is a thinly disguised dictatorship.

Whatever President Obiang says usually goes and so Simon Mann's best hope now is for a pardon from the very man he tried to topple.

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