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Zimbabwe Appeals Release of Suspected South African Mercenaries


Zimbabwe's attorney general has appealed a high court decision to release 62 suspected South African mercenaries from jail. The high court reduced their sentences by four months last week. The men had believed they would be released immediately, but now must wait until the appeal is heard before returning to South Africa.

Public Prosecutions Director Joseph Musakwa says the case has been submitted to the Supreme Court, but he did not know when it would be heard.

He said the basis of the appeal was that a portion of the South Africans' original sentence was reduced for good behavior. But he said he believes this could not apply to foreigners who are to be deported on release.

The High Court reduced the sentences last week, saying the original one-year term was too harsh for relatively minor immigration and aviation offenses. The men pleaded guilty and were sentenced by a lower court. They are serving their sentence in a maximum security prison on the outskirts of Harare.

Zimbabwe has no anti-mercenary legislation, so the courts could not try them on the authorities' suspicions that they were part of a group that would attempt to overthrow the government in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea.

The men's lawyer, Alwyn Griebenow said he is returning to Zimbabwe and has an appointment with prosecutors. He says he has not seen the High Court judgment that reduced his clients sentence,

The 62 were part of a group of 70 men who were at the Harare International Airport on March 7 last year when their Boeing 727 landed to load weapons bought from the state company, Zimbabwe Defense Industries. The men said they were on their way to guard a mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A group of about 13 South Africans and Armenians are serving long sentences in Equatorial Guinea, convicted of being part of the planned coup d'etat to install an exiled politician.

One of the prisoners in Zimbabwe died from a pre-existing medical condition, and two more were released on grounds of ill health. Two were released without charge and returned to South Africa last year.

The two pilots who flew the aircraft into Zimbabwe from South Africa were to remain in prison until August, but last week their sentence was shortened to end in May. This reduced sentence has also been appealed by the state.

The leader of the group, former British army officer Simon Mann, had his sentence on more serious firearms charges reduced from seven to four years after his trial. The state says this reduced sentence is not being challenged.

Legal experts say the state's appeal raised interesting points in law, given that the men were due to be deported immediately on release.

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