By John Barham, International Editor
Bungled coup leader pays a high price for failure.
A court in the oil-rich West African state of Equatorial Guinea has sentenced a British mercenary to 34 years and four months in prison for attempting to topple the government in 2004. Simon Mann, a former British special forces officer, claimed during his four-day trial that he was merely a “secondary actor” and “pawn” in a plot planned by London-based tycoons aiming to seize control of the country’s oil and gas fields.
The plot described in court was a distant echo of the privately-financed military adventures of the 19th-century scramble for Africa and rampaging European mercenaries who roamed the continent in the decades after independence. However, Mann’s trial highlighted the growing risk of political instability triggered by surging oil prices. Weak governments in many African countries now control substantial oil reserves, making them potential targets for domestic and foreign insurgents. Equatorial Guinea, with a population of 600,000, has become Africa’s third-largest oil exporter.
Mann told the court that Mark Thatcher, son of the former British Prime Minister, had played a leading role in the plot. Mann also named Eli Calil, a London-based financier, as ”the boss.” Both Thatcher and Calil deny involvement in any conspiracy to overthrow Equatorial Guinea’s government. Thacher had earlier pled guilty in South Africa to lesser charges of financing the coup. He was given a suspended jail sentence.
London’s Financial Times says Mann was a “consummate product of the British establishment.”
"He attended the elite Eton school and the Sandhurst military academy before serving in Britain’s Special Air Service. The heir to a brewing fortune, Mr Mann went on to develop links with Sandline International and Executive Outcomes, the private military companies that became involved in African civil wars in the 1990s."
Mann and 70 of his men were arrested in March 2004 when their plane stopped in Zimbabwe. Mann was jailed in Harare after being convicted of seeking to buy weapons without a license and was then extradited to Equatorial Guinea earlier this year.
Mann told the court that the governments of Spain, Equatorial Guinea’s former colonial power, and South Africa had both given a ”green light” for the operation. Prosecutors say the coup leaders sought to install exiled opposition leader Severo Moto.
The FT says that the government "has been keen to be seen to be giving Mr Mann a fair trial, conscious of its reputation among human rights groups as one of the most repressive regimes in Africa. Mr Mann has told reporters that he is being held in 'civilised' conditions and is served a glass of wine with lunch."
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