The trial of 14 South African and Armenian men held since March for allegedly planning to overthrow the president of Equatorial Guinea is under way after several delays. The trial opened Monday at the Banapa conference center in Malabo, capital of tiny oil-rich Equatorial Guinea.
American diplomat Dan Vernon, one of the international monitors at the trial, says the 14 foreign defendants, along with four men from Equatorial Guinea, are accused of plotting to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema's government.
"They appear to be healthy. They are all bearded. All 14 of the expatriates have beards at this point, but they appear to be in good health," says Mr. Vernon. "I noticed that Nick du Toit, the alleged leader of the group, appeared extremely composed, and chatted with the accused sitting on either side of himself on occasion."
Mr. du Toit and the other men were arrested more than five months ago in Equatorial Guinea. One of the defendants, a German, was said to have died of malaria while in custody. However, the human rights organization, Amnesty International, says there are indications he died following torture in prison.
Seventy other foreigners believed to have been on their way to Equatorial Guinea, are on trial in Zimbabwe, where they were arrested and charged with stopping off in Harare to buy assault rifles, grenades and rocket launchers.
Mr. Vernon says he has been told that the trial is expected to end on Thursday and sentences to be announced Friday. Mr. Vernon says that the majority of the defendants are facing sentences of between 26 and 86 years. "President Obiang has already stated that a capital sentence would not be handed down," he says. "Now, I'm sure that the prosecution will ask for capital punishment for Nick du Toit, only for Nick du Toit."
After being arrested, Mr. du Toit appeared on Equatorial Guinea's television to say that his group had intended to kidnap President Obiang and replace him with exiled opposition leader Severo Moto.
But despite his television confession, opposition leaders in Equatorial Guinea have accused President Obiang of inventing the coup plot in order to heighten security in one of Africa's richest oil-producing nations.