Mann jailed for 34 years and fined $24m for plotting to overthrow African leader

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The Independent Online

The former SAS officer Simon Mann was jailed for 34 years and ordered to pay fines of $24m (£12m) in Equatorial Guinea yesterday after being found guilty of plotting a military coup against the country's ruler.

The sentence handed down by a court in the capital, Malabo, was three years longer than had been demanded by the prosecution and the massive fine, said a government lawyer, was "unexpected". Mann's defence team had argued that he should not get any more than 10 years after admitting the offence, apologising and incriminating high-profile fellow conspirators such as Sir Mark Thatcher and Eli Calil, a businessman based in London. Mr Calil denies any involvement.

In an interview published in The Daily Telegraph today, Mr Calil insisted that he supported only democratic change in Equatorial Guinea. He admitted supporting plans by Severo Moto, the opposition leader living in exile in Spain, to return to the country.

Mr Calil also admitted that Mann and his mercenaries were hired to give military assistance to Mr Moto but blamed Mann for the events that followed. He said of Mann: "It was his lack of professionalism, his lack of discretion, his lack of judgement that caused this situation."

Mr Calil insisted that neither he nor Sir Mark had anything to do with any coup plot, adding that the plot described by Mann in court was "pure fantasy" concocted by the Equatorial Guinea authorities. Mann had been forced to read from a script to save his skin, he said.

In Malabo yesterday, Mann sat impassively while the presiding judge, Carlos Mangue, read out the sentence and stated that the long jail term was inevitable because of the "seriousness of the crime and the big weight of the evidence". He rejected Mann's claim in his defence that he was just a "junior member" of the coup team manipulated by a powerful international cartel and held that he had not shown enough "attitude of regret" despite his repeated expressions of contrition.

As he was being led to begin his term Mann, bespectacled, with his grey hair neatly swept back, said: "I don't know what's going to happen now, I have no idea. Perhaps you can appeal." Asked whether he would be able to survive the long years of incarceration he stated that conditions at Malabo's Black Beach prison were far better than those he had endured while being held in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, before being extradited to Equatorial Guinea. Immediately after the hearing one of the defence lawyers, Fabian Nguema, maintained that Mann had been entrapped into pleading guilty after believing false pledges made by the prosecution in a deeply flawed judicial process.

In surprisingly outspoken comments in a totalitarian state whose ruler, Teodoro Obiang Nguema (no relation) takes a dim view of criticism, Mr Nguema said: "They will promise nothing will happen to you, the President is going to pardon you and so on. They can say to a foreigner, 'here is an airline ticket you can go if you tell us everything'. Was Mann cheated into telling the truth? We know that's what happened. This is different from Zimbabwe, even in Zimbabwe the judges can sometimes come up with a verdict against the government."

Asked whether Mann had received a fair trial, Mr Nguema told Channel 4 News: "Well that's the way the President sees it. But for us lawyers, we've seen that there are many gaps in this judicial process. It might have been a great PR campaign for the President, giving him a propaganda victory. I hope not, we don't really want him to benefit from this by showing the world how he's done the right thing."

There had been speculation that he would serve only a fraction of his sentence before being deported. But his lawyers said last night that the severity of the sentence made that extremely doubtful. They added that it was highly unlikely he would be able to pay the fine.

A Lebanese-born businessman Mohamed Salaam, whose father Harry Salaam is said to be a friend of Mr Calil, was jailed for 18 years. Four Equatorial Guinea nationals were given six years each, one received 12 months while another was acquitted.