Thatcher can 'easily' prove he was not involved in coup plot, lawyer claims

Sir Mark Thatcher will "easily" be able to prove he had nothing to do with an alleged coup plot in the oil-rich west African state of Equatorial Guinea, his lawyer said yesterday, despite the jailing of his close friend Simon Mann on arms charges.

Sir Mark Thatcher will "easily" be able to prove he had nothing to do with an alleged coup plot in the oil-rich west African state of Equatorial Guinea, his lawyer said yesterday, despite the jailing of his close friend Simon Mann on arms charges.

Baroness Thatcher's son has been freed from house arrest in his luxury Cape Town mansion after his mother stood £165,000 bail for him, but he is not permitted to leave the Cape Peninsula and must report to the police every day. Last month he was arrested by the Scorpions, an elite unit investigating charges against him under South Africa's Foreign Military Assistance Act, and ordered to return to court in November.

"In the circumstances he is coping very well, because he believes he is innocent and is confident of the South African legal system," Sir Mark's local lawyer, Ron Wheeldon, said yesterday.

The main implication of Mann's seven-year sentence in Zimbabwe, Mr Wheeldon told BBC Radio 4's Today programme, was that the court found "no compelling evidence of a coup plot".

The only indication that such a plan existed, said the lawyer, came from "hearsay reports" by Nick du Toit, one of eight South Africans on trial in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, where they are charged with being the advance guard for a coup attempt. Mr du Toit was "apparently tortured", said Mr Wheeldon, "and certainly denied the sort of access to legal counsel that any civilised state would give a person".

Equatorial Guinea has suspended its trial until 1 October while it awaits the outcome of proceedings elsewhere. It has sent lawyers to South Africa, where the authorities have agreed to allow them to put questions to Sir Mark through a magistrate. A hearing for this has been set for next week, although Sir Mark's lawyers are contesting some of the arrangements.

The arrest of the former Prime Minister's son sharply increased international interest in an obscure saga which first came to light in March, when Mann, an Old Etonian former SAS officer, and a planeload of more than 60 alleged mercenaries, most of them former members of South Africa's special forces, were held in Zimbabwe. A day later Mr du Toit and his co-accused were arrested in Malabo.

Statements by Mann and Mr du Toit described a plot to overthrow Equatorial Guinea's dictatorial President, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, and replace him with an exiled opposition leader, Severo Moto. A London-based oil trader, Ely Calil, was named as the mastermind of the plot, and Equatorial Guinea has accused a number of Britons, both in this country and South Africa, of involvement. But Sir Mark was not named, either in the statements or in a document circulating in several countries which purports to list "investors" in the coup plan.

The accusations against Sir Mark are understood to be based on an investment of around US$275,000 that he made with Crause Steyl, a pilot who flew Dr Moto from Spain to Mali to await the outcome of events in Equatorial Guinea. Associates of Sir Mark have said the money was for an air ambulance enterprise in Sudan; yesterday Mr Wheeldon said he had invested in "a particular operation by a particular aircraft", and that "it seems some of that money was diverted without his knowledge".

Mr Steyl, whose brother Niel flew the aircraft seized in Zimbabwe, is understood to have turned state's evidence in South Africa, and may testify against Sir Mark. On Friday, when Mann was sentenced, Niel Steyl and his co-pilot were jailed for 16 months on immigration charges, while the other 65 men on the aircraft received 12 months.

In South Africa yesterday there were complaints at the severity of the sentences, given the length of time the men have already been held and the grim conditions in Zimbabwe's top-security Chikurubi prison, where they will serve their time.

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