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British Mercenary Mann Trial Opens in Equatorial Guinea Under Heavy Security

The trial of British mercenary Simon Mann has started in Equatorial Guinea under heavy security. Mann along with several suspected associates is being tried in connection with a failed 2004 coup plot against President Teodoro Obiang Nguema. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from our regional bureau in Dakar.

British mercenary Simon Mann and others being tried were brought to the court in Malabo in a convoy of armored vehicles.

Journalists were allowed inside, but had to leave phones, cameras, and pens outside, and were told to remove their shoes. They were given flip-flops instead.

Mann faces the death penalty on charges of crimes against the head of state, crimes against the government and crimes against the peace and independence of the state.

He served several years in jail in Zimbabwe for attempting to possess dangerous weapons, before being extradited this year to Equatorial Guinea.

Mann, who is in his 50s and comes from a British family with a brewing fortune, helped create two security firms, Executive Outcomes and Sandline International, which were associated with mercenary activity during the 1990s.

Prosecutors say he tried to fly a plane full of weapons to Equatorial Guinea as part of the 2004 plot to remove President Nguema in exchange for future oil payments.

Eleven other men, including several foreigners, are serving sentences of between 13 and 34 years in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea in connection with the failed coup plot.

Fabian Nsue Nguema was the lawyer for that group's alleged leader, South African arms dealer Nick Du Toit, as well as for six Equatorial Guineans who also went on trial Tuesday.

He says authorities have given him very little time to defend his clients, since the charges were only announced last Friday, giving him just the weekend and Monday to prepare.

Human rights lawyers say most accused in the case have been tortured while in jail and forced to sign or make statements.

A researcher working on the Equatorial Guinea desk for London-based Amnesty International, Muluka-Anne Miti says another foreigner is also going on trial.

"There is also a Lebanese businessman, Mohamed Salam, who has been reportedly charged with being an accomplice to the attempted coup," he said. "This is reportedly based on accusations that he knew Elie Khalil who reportedly financed the attempted coup and that Mohamed Salam repeatedly had information about this attempted coup but did not pass it on to authorities."

Khalil is a Lebanese oil businessman based in London. The plot also involved the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Mark Thatcher, who pleaded guilty to a role in the plot under a plea bargain agreement with South African prosecutors to avoid jail.

Thatcher said he paid for a military helicopter used by the mercenaries in the failed plot, but maintained that he believed it was to be used as an air ambulance.

Equatorial Guinea authorities have said they would like Thatcher to be extradited to Malabo and have issued an international arrest warrant against him.

Equatorial Guinea says the aim of the plot was to put exiled opposition leader Severo Moto in power. Moto is under house arrest in Spain on suspicion of arms trafficking.

Equatorial Guinea is sub-Saharan Africa's third biggest oil exporter. The ruling party of 1979 coup leader turned president Obiang recently won 99 out of 100 seats for a new parliament. All media in the lightly populated former Spanish colony is controlled by the government.