The majority of the 64 coup “foot soldiers” imprisoned in Zimbabwe last March on their way to an abortive coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea were released on Thursday, following a Zimbabwe High Court order that they be deported back to South Africa.
But their future is bleak. Members of the former South African Defence Force’s crack 32 Battalion, have been told that their 15-year tenure at Pomfret, a former asbestos-mining town in North West province, will end in July. The town — including about 700 houses, a school, churches, shops and a cemetery where the remains of soldiers who died in combat are buried — will be razed to the ground.
About 6 000 former Angolans were settled there in 1989 and given South African citizenship as part of the defence force’s obligation to its allies during the Angolan War.
The unit was disbanded in 1993, creating a reservoir of skilled former soldiers from which mercenary outfits such as Executive Outcomes have drawn hundreds of hired guns for more than a decade. In addition to last year’s abortive Equatorial Guinea coup, 32 Battalion veterans were used in Angola, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Papua New Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
According to a former military intelligence officer, it took “no more than four telephone calls” to mobilise a mercenary force in the past. Determined to stamp out the country’s image as what Minister of Foreign Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has called “a cesspool of mercenaries”, South Africa introduced stringent anti-mercenary legislation in 1998.
However, both the recent coup plot and the exodus of about 8 000 former security force members to Iraq as employees of private military companies contracted by the United States administration have exposed loopholes in the law, expected to be plugged by Parliament over the next few months.
The forced removal of the Pomfret community, officially ascribed to the danger of asbestosis, is seen by observers as an attempt to break up the “ready-made” army of unemployed war vets.
Announcing the move, which will cost the military about R50-million, Brigadier General BJ Moerane said residents would be relocated to wherever alternative accommodation was available, but that this would not be as a group. Those who do not want to move have the option of returning to Angola, where they fear reprisals from their former enemies.
Coup lawyer probed for ’unethical conduct’
A year after the Equatorial Guinea coup attempt was torpedoed, the saga smoulders on. Now the international lawyer acting for the government of Equatorial Guinea is being probed for unethical conduct by the British Law Society, writes Marléne Burger.
Henry Page, a maritime law expert who works for Pennington’s, one of London’s most respected law firms, stands accused of illegally obtaining private letters from mercenary Simon Mann to his wife, Amanda, containing instructions about the defence Mann planned to offer at his trial in Zimbabwe.
One of the letters mentioned the so-called “wonga list” — the names of those who bankrolled the coup, including Lebanese oil trader Eli Calil, disgraced Tory peer and best-selling author Jeffrey Archer, London accountant Greg Wales, property mogul Gary Hersham and mining expert David Tremain, who are all being investigated by Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism unit.
How Page came by the Mann correspondence is one of several questions surrounding his unorthodox handling of a pending claim by Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema for damages against Mann, Wales and Calil in the London High Court.
Last month he came in for a tongue-lashing from judges in Guernsey who have been asked to order the release of bank statements for two of Mann’s companies, Systems Design and Logo Logistics, allegedly used to channel funding for the coup. Page was also lambasted by Cape Town Judge Deon van Zyl last October, when Sir Mark Thatcher challenged a subpoena to answer 43 questions about his role in the coup plot.
Van Zyl recommended that Page be reported for unprofessional conduct, saying: “If this is the nature of the legal advice the Equatorial Guineans are getting, I would suggest very strongly that they get another adviser.”
Judges in the Channel Islands, where financial institutions are renowned for their discretion, were incensed by the leaking of details about Mann’s bank accounts to the British media. Page was furnished with some of this information before lawyers acting for Mann appealed against an earlier court order.
But it was an accusation that Page was present when Mann signed a written confession about the coup plot after being tortured by Zimbabwean authorities shortly after his arrest last March that angered the Guernsey judges most. “Here was a man who was facing the death penalty, and a man acting for the government [of Equatorial Guinea] goes into his cell to take a statement,” said Richard Southwell, QC. “What on Earth Mr Page thought he was doing, I do not know.”
Mann’s seven-year sentence in Harare’s Chikurubi prison for illegal arms dealing was recently reduced to four years, with the possibility of early release under a presidential pardon. South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority is anxious to have him extradited and charged with breaching the Foreign Military Assistance Act, but Equatorial Guinea is equally keen to put him on trial.
Should this happen, Mann would almost certainly face the death sentence or, like his South African counterpart, former special forces officer Nick du Toit, more than 30 years in Black Beach prison where, according to the latest United States State Department human rights report, “conditions are life-threatening”.
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