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Zimbabwe Arraignment of 70 Suspected Mercenaries to be Held in Prison - 2004-03-22

A Zimbabwean judge has ruled that the arraignment of the 70 suspected mercenaries held in Harare since March 7 must be heard in a maximum security prison.

The ruling Monday came after the men's defense team made an urgent application to the High Court to try to have the remand hearing in an open court. The state had cited security concerns and transportation problems when it announced that the hearing would be heard at the prison.

The defense argued that if the hearing is held in the prison, there would be no transparency and no justice.

Dismissing the application, Judge Tedias Karwi concurred with the state, on the condition that at least 100 observers, including members of the media and families of the accused, are given easy access to the proceedings.

The spokesman for the defense team, Jonathan Samukange, who had earlier threatened not to attend a hearing in the prison, said the defendants would go along with the ruling. "At least we are trying our best to make sure that we are going to have a free and fair hearing. The judge has made a ruling and we are bound by it," he said.

The 70 suspected mercenaries, including three crew members, were arrested at Harare International Airport two weeks ago.

It is now alleged the men 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 Equatorial Guinea.

The charges faced by the 70 include violating Zimbabwe's immigration, firearms and security laws. On Saturday the charge of "conspiring to commit international terrorism" was added to the charge sheets.

The men say they are innocent and that they were on their way to perform mine guarding duties in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They are expected to have their hearing at the prison on Tuesday.