WITNESS - Media menace at coup plotter's trial

Tue Jul 8, 2008 12:21am BST

1 of 3. British mercenary Simon Mann (C) listens to evidence during his trial for organising a failed 2004 coup in Malabo in this June 20, 2007 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Daniel Flynn/Files

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Daniel Flynn, correspondent for West and Central Africa, joined Reuters in 1998 and has worked in Venezuela and Spain. In the following story, he describes his experience of the trial of Simon Mann in Equatorial Guinea. By Daniel Flynn

MALABO (Reuters) - A huddle of reporters waited in a tropical downpour outside a courthouse in Equatorial Guinea as Simon Mann, one of Africa's most notorious foreign mercenaries, arrived in a convoy of armoured vehicles.

His trial promised revelations about a failed 2004 coup in this secretive but oil-rich West African state: about a dozen British journalists had come to the remote island capital.

The aristocratic heir to a brewing fortune who was educated at exclusive school Eton, he was expected to implicate the son of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, shadowy London-based tycoon Eli Calil and some foreign governments.

But first, we had to get into the heavily guarded court.

"Take off your shoes!" barked a muscular machine gun-toting soldier, tossing pairs of plastic flip-flops on the floor.

We were ordered to remove watches and jewellery, and hand over mobile phones, pens and paper.

"We've been told that pens can be filled with lethal substances," said one official, while snipers stared down from nearby rooftops.

As foreign diplomats strolled past fully shod and chatting on their phones, I was reminded that authorities in tiny Equatorial Guinea do not take kindly to foreign media scrutiny.

"Journalists are the most dangerous people in the world!" an official told me last year, turning down a previous visa application to visit humanitarian projects.

The discovery of oil in the 1990s transformed this country of 600,000 people from one of Africa's most unstable and forgotten backwaters -- notable only for the brutality of its governments -- into a hotspot for foreign petroleum companies.

President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who killed his uncle to seize power in 1979, keeps a tight control of the media. In 2006, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked the former Spanish colony among the world's five most censored countries.

After three previous failed attempts to get a visa, on this occasion a TV colleague and I simply jumped on the first plane to Malabo and hoped for the best.

For Obiang's regime, the trial was an opportunity to present itself as a victim of post-colonial machinations, and when we landed, I was surprised to be welcomed with open arms.

A plain-clothes policeman quickly stamped our passports and drove us to a hotel. We were being monitored: when we changed guesthouse, the policeman arrived at breakfast with a friend to act as our 'driver'.

But press accreditation was no guarantee of fair treatment: my TV colleague was manhandled out of the court compound and a gang of soldiers broke his camera, forcing it open in the rain. "Go back to your hotel room, relax there, and don't leave it," their commanding officer told him.

STORY FROM ANOTHER ERA

Inside the courthouse, the intrigue thickened. In the dizzying four-day trial, Mann said the plot to replace the president with exiled opposition leader Severo Moto was masterminded by Calil, codenamed "The Cardinal".

In clipped English, Mann implicated the governments of South Africa and former colonial power Spain, and implied Washington would also have looked favourably on a coup. Calil, Thatcher and the governments have denied any involvement.

It was story which seemed to belong to Africa's post-colonial past. Every twist in Mann's testimony was greeted with gasps from the press seats as journalists including myself reached for cliches about Africa's "last dog of war".

Official paranoia about assassins with poison-tipped pens or killer footwear fitted in perfectly.

The myth of the swashbuckling mercenary was made popular by former Reuters journalist Frederick Forsyth's thriller "The Dogs of War", written in Equatorial Guinea after a botched 1973 coup by mercenaries launched from Spain.

But the trial itself was half-thriller, half-farce: power cuts plunged the court into darkness and Mann was obliged to politely correct his translator's English. Another defendant, Lebanese businessman Mohamed Salaam, shouted proclamations of his insanity, and guns shown as evidence were too old to work.

None of the journalists despatched by the British newspapers spoke Spanish, so they huddled around me as I translated.

Guarded by two black-uniformed police, Mann was a figure too improbable even for a Forsyth novel.

The son and grandson of English cricket captains, he founded two companies after leaving the British army -- Executive Outcomes and Sandline International -- which became synonymous with mercenary activity in Africa in the 1990s.

But my first glimpse of him, as he shuffled to the toilet in shackles and a grey uniform, was a shock. He was far more gaunt and grey than images I had seen in the Zimbabwe prison where he spent four years after being arrested in 2004 with a plane of South African mercenaries headed to Malabo.

With no family present, he cut a solitary figure as he stood cradling his stomach, the result of an untreated hernia.

With a country estate and property in London, the 56 year old appeared to have sought adventure as much as riches.

"I agreed to do this for the money, yes, but also because I believed it was right," Mann told the judge. He said he was now convinced he had been lied to about corruption and rights abuses: "Please sir ... I am very sorry for what I have done."

HIS OWN 'DOGS OF WAR'

Mann, who was sentenced to 34 years in jail on Monday, has started writing his own memoirs.

When I was finally allowed to talk to him at the end of the hearings, he was coldly furious about his lawyers' rejection of a pardon in return for information three years ago.

"You'd better ask them why they decided to do that," he said, after checking with his minders if he was allowed to talk. "If I have to (spend my life in prison), then I have to."

The government's case rested almost entirely on evidence presented by him, including a $15 million (7.5 million pounds) contract to put opposition leader Moto in power and act as his bodyguard.

In return, Mann has received VIP treatment in Malabo's infamous Black Beach prison, including an exercise machine in a private cell. He lunches with Security Minister Manuel Nguema Mbo, sharing a glass of wine and food brought in from a hotel.

"I wouldn't say our relations are cordial but he is a foreign citizen and we have to look after him," the minister told the scrum of British reporters, adding Mann had given him a copy of "The Wonga Coup", a book about the putsch.

Conditions in Black Beach are not so easy for everyone. One of his fellow accused died on his first night in prison: authorities said he dived head-first onto a concrete floor.

When six opposition members recanted their confessions in court and said they were tortured, the prosecution retaliated by raising the sentences they demanded to 22 years from four.

"Mann will soon be pardoned and sent home because he has cooperated," said their lawyer Fabian Nsue Nguema. "Foreigners are allowed to go home."

A fitting end to the career of Africa's last 'dog of war'.

(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Braun; Editing by Sara Ledwith)

(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/ )

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