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Zimbabwe Again Postpones Trial of Suspected S.  African Mercenaries - 2004-07-22

The trial of 70 suspected South African mercenaries has been delayed once again to give lawyers more time to prepare. The men were arrested at Zimbabwe's international airport in March and accused by the government of plotting to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea.

For security reasons, the High Court allowed this trial to take place where the men are being held, in Zimbabwe's maximum security prison 25 kilometers south of Harare. Unlike in ordinary courts, the public and unregistered journalists are not admitted.

Before the trial was due to begin Wednesday, some families of the imprisoned men, who all travel on South African passports, said they believed a plea bargain had been arranged between prosecutors and the defense.

But lawyers acting for the men denied any plea bargain had been discussed or struck with state prosecutors. The trial, which had been postponed twice before, will resume next Tuesday.

Defense lawyer Alwyn Griebenow said this time the case has been postponed at the state's request and the defense had no objection. He said, if all goes well, the trial would last between one and two weeks, but he said it could also last 18 months.

After the men were arrested two cabinet ministers, in charge of home affairs and foreign affairs, said the men had bought weapons in Zimbabwe to be used in a coup in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea.

Foreign minister Stan Mudenge called for the men to be executed if found guilty. The indictment contained no specific evidence linking the men to a plot in Equatorial Guinea.

The defendants claim the weapons were bought in Zimbabwe for a security contract they had to guard a diamond mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their lawyer, Mr. Griebenow, said the security law under which the men have been charged carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

Equatorial Guinea, with which Zimbabwe recently signed an extradition treaty, has asked Harare to send the 70 men to Equatorial Guinea for prosecution, along with 15 other men detained at the same time, in Malabo.

Families of the 70 alleged mercenaries say they fear the men would be executed if they are sent to Equatorial Guinea.