Briton suspected of leading mercenaries in coup plot 'paid £100,000 for weapons'

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The Independent Online

A British man detained with 66 others in Harare on allegations of plotting a coup in Equatorial Guinea could face the death penalty under possible terrorism charges, Zimbabwean sources said yesterday.

The suspected mercenaries will be charged with "attempting to overthrow a sovereign government". But Simon Mann could face extra charges, which under Zimbabwean's Public Order and Security Act carry the death penalty.

Mr Mann was in Harare before the arrival of the other suspects, and is accused of "organising illegal activities". Sources said that his charges were being discussed by law enforcement authorities. They said the charges centred on Zimbabwe's statutory crime of terrorism and sabotage, which could lead to his execution. Kembo Mohadi, the Home Affairs Minister, said yesterday that Zimbabwe was bound by international law to protect other states from aggression. He said: "The charges are quite clear, they were bent on actually destabilising an independent country, a sovereign country, and we are bound by the AU [African Union] charter and the UN charter to protect other states from any aggression."

Mr Mann was waiting on the tarmac when an aircraft carrying the suspected mercenaries landed at Harare International Airport on Sunday night. Equatorial Guinea also arrested a smaller group described by officials there as part of an advance party.

Ruben Maye Nsue Mangue, Equatorial Guinea's Justice Minister, said that the plan was to abduct President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and take him to Spain, the country's former colonial ruler.

Mr Mohadi said that Mr Mann had been in Harare to allegedly buy weapons for the group from South Africa, Angola, Namibia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

A Zimbabwe official said that Mr Mann had paid $180,000 (£100,000) to the Zimbabwe Defence Industries for the arms that the aircraft had come to collect. Mr Mann and Simon Witherspoon, a South African, were allegedly due to lead the operation.

Zimbabwean lawyers said yesterday that the charge of "plotting to overthrow a sovereign government" was not a crime under Zimbabwean law. Bharat Patel, the acting Attorney-General, announced that charges relating to violations of the Firearms Act, Immigration Act and Aviation Act would be considered against the men. None of these carries the death penalty.

Zimbabwe's Foreign Affairs Minister, Stan Mudenge, has stated that Zimbabwe wants to see the men executed.

Lovemore Madhuku, a law professor at the University of Zimbabwe, said he feared the government could manipulate the courts.

"I feel sorry for that Briton. He might have to endure all the pain of Mugabe's hatred of Britain," he said.