Thatcher is refused US visa over coup plot conviction

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The Independent Online

Sir Mark Thatcher has been refused a visa to live in the United States following his conviction for involvement in the failed coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea. Sir Mark, the son of Baroness Thatcher, the former prime minister, had intended to join his wife and their two children in the US after being given a four-year suspended jail sentence and fine at his trial in January, but immigration authorities turned down his visa application, it was confirmed yesterday.

"It is quite true that my visa application has been rejected," Sir Mark said in a statement. "It was always a calculated risk when I plea-bargained in South Africa."

Sir Mark was fined £265,000 by a South African court but escaped jail as part of a deal in which he admitted to having "unwittingly" financed the attempted overthrow of the government in Equatorial Guinea.

President Teodoro Obiang Nguema's 25-year regime had accused Sir Mark and others of being involved in a British-led plot to install an opposition leader and gain control of valuable mineral reserves in the country which is Africa's third-largest oil producer.

Sir Mark, 51, had bankrolled the purchase of an aircraft which he knew would be used by mercenaries but claimed no knowledge of the intended coup. In February he appeared again in a South African court, to answer 43 questions submitted by Equatorial Guinea prosecutors, and again insisted he had nothing to do with the coup plot. Immediately after the trial he had spoken of his plan to be reunited "imminently" with his Texan-born wife Diane, 44, and their two children Michael, 15, and Amanda, 11, in Dallas. He said: "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." Sir Mark lived in the US for several years in the Eighties, when he worked in the car industry and also met his wife.

He has been staying since the trial with his 79-year-old mother in London. He said yesterday: "As a result of this [visa] decision, I shall make the family home in Europe, not the UK, and my family will be joining me as soon as arrangements are made. But the children will continue to be educated in America."

US law prohibits anyone convicted of a crime involving "moral turpitude" from entering the country. As a British passport holder, Sir Mark could travel to the US and apply for a visa waiver which would allow him to stay for 90 days, but a refusal could affect his future chances of entering the country.

A spokesman for Sir Mark said he could reapply for the visa in 2007. "He has been advised against travelling as a tourist and seeking a waiver on the plane in the circumstances, and he can reapply in two years' time," he said.