Mark Thatcher must face questioning over Guinea 'coup plot'

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Sir Mark Thatcher suffered a legal setback yesterday at the start of a series of court appearances over his alleged involvement in a failed coup in the oil-rich state of Equatorial Guinea earlier this year.

The former Prime Minister's son, who is due to face charges under South Africa's anti-mercenary laws today, must also submit to questioning tomorrow by the central African state, which accuses him of helping to finance the coup plot.

The 51-year-old businessman appeared confident as he arrived at the high court in Cape Town for his first legal hurdle, an appeal against an order to answer Equatorial Guinea's questions under oath.

But at the end of the 90-minute ruling, a full bench of three judges rejected his counsel's arguments and dismissed his application to have the Equatorial Guinea subpoena set aside. Costs were also awarded against him. Sir Mark said on the steps of the court: "They did reaffirm my right to silence, but it was a long judgment and we will have to study it." Last night his lawyer, Alan Bruce-Brand, said no decision had been taken on whether to appeal.

Yesterday's judgment adds to Sir Mark's proliferating legal problems since his arrest in August by South Africa's elite Scorpions task force. He was freed from house arrest after his mother, Baroness Thatcher, stood £180,000 bail for him, but his passport has been impounded, he is confined to the Cape Peninsula area and has to report daily to a police station.

The forthcoming issue of Vanity Fair magazine carries an interview in which Sir Mark says: "I will never be able to do business again. Who will deal with me? Thank God my father is not alive to see this."

Today he is to appear at a magistrates' court in the Cape Town suburb of Wynberg to answer charges under the country's Foreign Military Assis- tance Act, which carry a maximum penalty of 15 years' jail. Last week three South Africans admitted their involvement in the coup plot and were spared prison sentences in return for agreeing to testify against him.

One is Crause Steyl, a former pilot in the apartheid-era special forces with whom the Briton invested £160,000 to buy helicopters. Mr Steyl said that he was fully aware they were to be used in the attempted coup, but Sir Mark has said he believed they were for an air ambulance venture in Sudan.

Sir Mark may also have to fight extradition attempts by Equatorial Guinea, which has charged him in absentia. He has been linked to the coup plot by Nick du Toit, who is on trial in Equatorial Guinea with eight other former members of South Africa's special forces. A verdict is due tomorrow on charges that they were the advance guard for a planeload of mercenaries led by Simon Mann, a former SAS officer and friend of Sir Mark who has been jailed in Zimbabwe for illegal arms purchases.

Under South African law, 42 questions set by Equatorial Guinea investigators, mostly concerning his dealings with Mr du Toit and Mr Mann, would be put to Sir Mark by a local magistrate in an open court.