Dogs of war? These men in shackles have been whipped into submission

Their wrists and feet shackled, the accused half-crawled, half-fell out of the high four-wheel-drives that had delivered them to a garish conference centre-turned courtroom in Equatorial Guinea's capital.

The flashing lights, blaring sirens and escort of camouflage-clad troops merely made the gaunt, grey crocodile of men, shuffling silently through the rain in their T-shirts, shorts and rubber sandals, seem more pathetic. If these were dogs of war, they had been whipped into submission long ago.

Since their arrest on 8 March on charges of attempting to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, eight former members of South Africa's apartheid-era special forces, six Armenian air crew and five local men have been kept chained 24 hours a day in Malabo's notorious Black Beach prison.

Although their leader, Nick du Toit, faces a possible death sentence, even he must have welcomed the start of their trial last week as an escape from the uncertainty. But, yesterday, Mr du Toit and his 18 co-accused were thrust back into limbo.

Diplomats and lawyers gathering at the conference centre were expecting yesterday's hearing to be the last, with the defence team making their final pleas before the three judges retired to consider their verdict, possibly as early as Friday. But after a delay lasting well over an hour, Equatorial Guinea's Attorney General, Jose Olo Obono, began by asking for the case to be suspended indefinitely. All the proceedings were conducted in Spanish, the language of the country's former colonial rulers, but in the midst of the unfamiliar legalese, the name "Mark Thatcher" could clearly be understood.

The defence objected that it would be inhumane to keep the alleged mercenaries locked up in harsh conditions with no knowledge of when they might be freed, but after an adjournment lasting only a couple of minutes, the judges granted the suspension. Their spokesman, Judge Salvador Ondo Ncumu, said the case had acquired an "international dimension", and it should not continue until investigations elsewhere had been completed.

The misfortune for Mr du Toit and his colleagues is that two days after their trial began last week, it was upstaged by the arrest in Cape Town of Baroness Thatcher's son. Even though the Equatorial Guinea arrests coincided six months ago with the seizure of a planeload of private soldiers in Zimbabwe, led by Simon Mann, an Old Etonian former SAS officer, the affair generated only moderate international interest until South Africa's elite Scorpions crime-busters turned up at Sir Mark's mansion in Cape Town.

President Obiang's regime, which wants to demonstrate the conspiracy against him went to the highest levels, suddenly found it might be able to land a much bigger fish. With Mr Thatcher under house arrest in South Africa and Mr Mann on trial in Zimbabwe - he was convicted of illegally attempting to buy arms, though the rest of the 90 arrested with him were acquitted or found guilty of minor offences - the Malabo case risked becoming a sideshow.

Equatorial Guinea wants Mr Thatcher and Mr Mann to be extradited but it has received little encouragement from the South Africans or the Zimbabweans.

Like Britain, South Africa refuses to send suspects to countries that retain the death penalty, although it may allow lawyers from Equatorial Guinea to question Sir Mark in Cape Town. But the whole affair has already drawn more attention to this tropical dictatorship, which consists of a few lush volcanic islands and a jungle-covered strip of the African mainland, than it has enjoyed since the Spanish loosened their grip in the 1960s.

President Obiang appears to be revelling in it. Yesterday he summoned the foreign press for what turned out to be little more than an opportunity for him to be photographed giving them an audience. The men on trial, he told us, were "individuals without morals who attempted a crime against our country which would have resulted in blood being spilt".

But since he deposed and executed his despotic uncle in 1979, the President has been accused of spilling plenty of blood on his own account, and even of eating the testicles of his murdered enemies to imbibe their masculinity.

The accused were not in the courtroom to hear the debate that will prolong their uncertainty. But a door to their holding room was ajar as they were told the news, and one could see the looks of defeat as they shuffled back out to the prison vehicles, a young soldier clapping his hands to speed them up.

Mr Mico, their defence lawyer, said: "All the accused apart from Mr du Toit have told me they were tortured." Belinda du Toit, who says her drawn, grey-bearded husband was once the same, ample shape as her, looked on wondering when she would see him again.

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