Mercenary Mann sentenced to seven years in jail over coup plot

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The Independent Online

A former SAS officer accused of planning a coup in Equatorial Guinea was jailed for seven years in Zimbabwe yesterday for arms offences.

A former SAS officer accused of planning a coup in Equatorial Guinea was jailed for seven years in Zimbabwe yesterday for arms offences.

Simon Mann, 51, who was arrested in March when a team of mercenaries he led landed in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, admitted two weeks ago that he had illegally tried to buy weapons. The 65 other men on the plane were each sentenced to 12 months for immigration offences; the two pilots were given 16 months.

The sentences came amid fresh claims about the funding of the operation, which allegedly included a contribution from Sir Mark Thatcher. The military operation is said to have been aimed at unseating President Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, Africa's third-largest oil producer.

Relatives broke down in tears when the jail terms were announced by a magistrate in a makeshift court inside Chikurubi maximum-security prison, where the men have been detained since their arrest. Observers said the sentences were stiffer than expected.

Mishrod Guvamombe, the magistrate, said: "The accused [Simon Mann] was the author of the whole transaction. He was caught while trying to take the firearms out of the country.'' The magistrate said the offences "were well planned and well executed and that must be reflected in the penalty".

The court ordered the seizure of Mann's $3m (£1.7m) Boeing 727 and $180,000 found on board. The men claimed the weapons were intended to provide security at a diamond mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Funding for the coup attempt is said to have come from a shadowy group of businessmen in South Africa and London who aimed to take over the country and make millions from its oil wealth. All of those named have denied involvement. They have been identified by the so-called Wonga list, information given to the South African authorities by two ex-colleagues of Mann who have agreed to give evidence.

According to reports yesterday, Ely Calil, the secretive London-based Lebanese oil millionaire, contributed $750,000, while Greg Wales and Gary Hersham, also London-based, and David Tremain, a Briton based in South Africa, each contributed about $500,000.

Mann himself is said to have given $500,000 but demanded a £10m payment for leading the operation, as well as £45,000 to purchase the arms and a contract to provide security for the planned new head of state, said to have been Severo Moto, an exiled opposition politician.

Another figure allegedly involved in funding is Sir Mark, son of the former prime minister, who was arrested last month by the South African authorities and charged with taking part in foreign military activity. His lawyer says his client has been accused of providing financing for a helicopter to be used in the coup attempt. Sir Mark, who denies the allegation, has been ordered to appear before a magistrate on 22 September.

The name "A J H Archer" - the initials of the disgraced peer Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare - is said to appear on documents which suggest that Mr Mann was paid £74,000 by credit transfer four days before his arrest. Lord Archer, who is said to be close to Mr Calil, has denied all knowledge of any plot.

David Hart, a millionaire businessman who advised Baroness Thatcher during the miners' strike, was named by Mann in a letter sent from jail, asking for help from his friends. Mr Hart has also denied any involvement.

Nick du Toit, an associate of Mann's, is among 15 others on trial for their lives in Equatorial Guinea, accused of taking part in the coup plot; he has admitted involvement. The country has also applied for international arrest warrants for Mann, Sir Mark and others.

Unless Zimbabwe agrees to Mann being deported, he is likely to serve his sentence in Chikurubi prison, which has been condemned by human rights organisations. Prisoners are confined to shared cells for most of the day, fed a meagre diet and live in unsanitary conditions. Mann and his companions have complained about conditions at the prison and claim they have been beaten.

Stephen Jakobi, director of the pressure group Fair Trials Abroad, said: "There is a very real problem in countries where nobody gets a fair trial, because they do not observe international standards, and I am afraid we are dealing with one here.'' British embassy staff have attended the trial and visited Mann in prison.

Mann, who has six children and a home in Hampshire, has had a colourful career. The son of an England cricket captain and heir to the Watneys brewing fortune, he was educated at Eton and Sandhurst, joined the Scots Guards and then the SAS. After leaving the Army in 1981 he became involved in private security companies specialising in conflict zones in Africa.

Henry Bellingham, the Tory MP, said he had known Mann since their schooldays. Mr Bellingham, who called on the Government to press for his return to the UK, said: "I find it very difficult to believe the allegations. He has always been an adventurer, but a thoroughly professional one. This just isn't his style.

"Any sentence from a court in Zimbabwe, where the whole legal system has been discredited, is something the British Government must take a close interest in."