Ex-SAS officer may face death penalty in coup conspiracy trial

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The Independent Online

A British national will go on trial today on charges of leading a plot to oust the government of the oil-rich west African state of Equatorial Guinea.

A British national will go on trial today on charges of leading a plot to oust the government of the oil-rich west African state of Equatorial Guinea.

Simon Mann, a 49-year-old former SAS officer and old Etonian, will face serious charges under Zimbabwe's security laws which could result in the death penalty if he is convicted.

Mr Mann is currently being held in solitary confinement in a Zimbabwean prison.

Yesterday, 67 men held on charges of plotting a coup in Equatorial Guinea pleaded guilty to violating Zimbabwe's immigration and civil aviation laws when their plane landed in Harare in March.

Mr Mann and two others were already in Zimbabwe when the plane landed and did not face these charges. Today, though, he will be charged with conspiracy to overthrow a legitimate foreign government and with purchasing arms of war without a licence.

Mr Mann was on the tarmac at Harare International Airport when his 67 co-accused landed in an ageing Boeing 727 from South Africa. He is accused of having been waiting to load weapons he had bought from Zimbabwe's state arms manufacturer, Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI). Mr Mann said the arms were for guarding a mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

But Zimbabwe authorities said Mr Mann had planned to join his co-accused in the plane and lead them into overthrowing the Equatorial Guinea government using the weapons. This would be achieved in liaison with an advance party of 15 men who were arrested in the West African country following Mr Mann's arrest in Harare.

Mr Mann, who had previously been linked to various mercenary activities across Africa, is expected to argue that his purchase of arms was legitimate. He had made similar purchases before and the ZDI had not insisted on him possessing a licence before buying the arms.

"They seem to want to nail Mr Mann more ... We will see how it goes," said Jonathan Samkange, Mr Mann's lawyer.

The Independent is reliably informed that the ZDI's managing director, Mr Tshinga Dube, who was at the airport to help Mr Mann load the arms was incensed by the latter's arrest as it had cost him a "good regular customer".

But it is alleged that Mr Mann was paid millions of pounds by exiled Equatorial Guinea politicians as advance payment for the plot. He would later be rewarded with oil concessions and more money if successful in overthrowing President Theodro Mbasogo Nguema's regime.

Mr Mann, who has been kept in solitary confinement, at times in handcuffs and leg irons for long periods, looked pale and demoralised at the makeshift court room at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison yesterday.

The families of his 67 co-accused are hopeful the men would receive lighter sentences and be deported back to South Africa. However, there remains the prospect of extradition to Equatorial Guinea, where anyone found guilty of involvement in the plot could face execution.