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Zimbabwe Holds Hearing for 70 Suspected Mercenaries - 2004-03-23

The 70 suspected mercenaries arrested in Zimbabwe earlier this month appeared in a special courtroom at a maximum security prison Tuesday. The suspects have been ordered to remain in custody.

The men made a brief appearance before magistrate Mishrod Guvamombe and had the charges against them read.

Sixty-seven of the men are charged with violating Zimbabwe's aviation and immigration laws, while all 70 are charged with violating the country's firearms laws and conspiring to purchase and possess weapons, under the country's Public Order and Security Act.

According to defense lawyer Jonathan Samukange, this is the most serious charge faced by the men, and it carries a possible sentence of up to 10 years in jail. Zimbabwean officials had said the men could be charged with terrorism and could face life in prison. But no such charges were presented on Tuesday.

The hearing was held in the Chikurubi prison, where the men are being held. A judge ruled Monday that the hearing should be in the prison because the government claimed security problems bringing so many defendants into the courthouse in central Harare. The court also ruled that the hearing should be open to the public, even though it was at the prison.

Prosecutors say the alleged leader of the group, Simon Mann, approached the Zimbabwe Defense Industries with a shopping list of offensive weapons in February. The prosecutors say he paid $180,000 for the weapons.

Mr. Mann and two others were at Harare International Airport when the plane carrying the other men landed, allegedly to pick up the weapons. But the men were arrested by Zimbabwean authorities.

The suspects who were remanded in custody until April 13 did not apply for bail. Mr. Samukange explained that they would apply during their next remand hearing. "One of the requirements for bail is that they must have a physical place where they can reside. I understand that members of their families are making arrangements so that they can have places where they can reside. We are hoping that by the 13th of April when we go back to court they would have obtained addresses in Harare where they can reside. Only then can we make application," he said.

Mr. Samukange says the men claim that they were on their way to perform mine guarding duties in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But prosecutors say they were on their way to Equatorial Guinea to take part in a coup d'etat. Fifteen others, who are described as the advance team of the coup plotters, are being held in the oil-rich West African country.