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Zimbabwe Police Finalize Charges Against Suspected Mercenaries - 2004-03-17

In Zimbabwe, police are finalizing charges against 70 South Africans and others suspected of being mercenaries hired to stage a coup d'etat in Equatorial Guinea.

According to defense lawyers, the detained South Africans will appear in court Thursday, where the police charges against them are to be confirmed.

The police have told the men they will be charged with several offenses, including conspiracy to murder the president of Equatorial Guinea and violation of several immigration and firearms laws. Now, the police say they will add more charges under the country's security legislation, which carries harsher penalties.

The penalties for the alleged crimes vary from a couple of dollars to long prison terms, and one of their attorneys Jonathan Samkange says the trials could take many months, and possibly years.

Mr. Samkange branded as ridiculous the plan to charge his clients with conspiracy to commit murder. He said any conspiracy would have been made in South Africa, and any murder the men are accused of conspiring to commit would have taken place in Equatorial Guinea. He claims Zimbabwe has no legal jurisdiction to prosecute the men for such alleged crimes.

Sixty seven men were arrested when their Boeing 727 touched down at Harare International Airport on a flight from South Africa. Three South Africans waiting for the plane were also arrested.

It took five days before the men were allowed to see their lawyers.

During that period, Zimbabwe's Home Affairs Minister told the state-controlled media that the leader of the group, former British soldier, Simon Mann, has said that the plane was bound for Equatorial Guinea, where he and his colleagues would stage a coup d'etat. Foreign minister Stan Mudenge reacted to the alleged confession by saying the men could face the death penalty.

But Mr. Mann told police and his lawyers this week that he had a legal contract with the Zimbabwe government's arms manufacturers to buy mostly light weapons to guard a mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The weapons were paid for, according to the defense lawyers, who say the government should have informed Mr. Mann if he needed a license to buy them.

According to the lawyers, security personnel found no weapons on the men, or in the aircraft, and none had been delivered to the airport for collection.

The men have denied all the charges against them, and say they were on their way to do legitimate security work in the Democratic Republic of Congo.