AllAfrica.com
Dec 1 2004

Equatorial Guinea: Mercenary Trial Was Unfair, Legal Observers Say


UN Integrated Regional Information Networks

December 1, 2004
Dakar

Specialists in international law and human rights who observed the
recent trial of alleged coup plotters and mercenaries in Equatorial
Guinea said on Wednesday that it had been conducted unfairly and in
breach of international conventions.

Lengthy prison sentences were handed down by a court in the capital
Malabo last Friday against 20 people, 11 of them foreigners.

All were convicted of plotting to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang
Nguema by helping to prepare an abortive invasion of the oil-rich
West African nation by South African mercenaries .

Marise Castro, who observed the proceedings for Amnesty
International, told IRIN by telephone from London that "it was not in
our view a fair trial."

Mark Ellis, Executive Director of the London-based International Bar
Association which also sent an observer to the hearings, said "the
trial fell short of international fair trial standards."

Five South Africans and six Armenians were found guilty of
involvement in the failed coup against President Teodoro Obiang
Nguema and were sentenced to between 14 and 34 years in jail. Two
Equatorial Guineans who appeared in court received lighter sentences.

Castro said the 15 foreign nationals arrested on 8 March in the
capital Malabo - one of whom died in custody nine days later - had
been held "day and night since their arrest in handcuffs and (ankle)
shackles that weren't even removed to go to the toilet."

"That in itself is torture," the Amnesty observer said.

Castro added that the prisoners had been deprived of adequate
medicine and food during their eight months in detention and had not
been allowed proper access to their families,

Ellis said the court's refusal to take into consideration allegations
of torture by the defendants and their lawyers was "a fundamental
breach of internarional law."

Former South African soldier Nick du Toit, the alleged leader of the
group and the sole defendant to have initially confessed to a role in
a conspiracy, said his confession had been obtained by torture. The
defendants said they had signed statements under duress.

"But the court just ignored that," Ellis said. "That is inconsistent
with international law. A court must record such an allegation and
order an investigation if necessary."

Castro quoted one of the defence lawyers as saying "the defendants
still had marks on their bodies."

Two of the defendants said in court that German national, Gerhardt
Merz, also arrested in March, had died in front of them as a result
of torture in Black Beach prison. The authorities said he died of
cerebral malaria.

Ellis said the government of Equatorial Guinea also violated
international law by failing to notify defendants of the charges
during the pre-trial period and then denying them access to legal
counsel until three days before the trial began last August.

Both the IBA and Amnesty International criticized the court's failure
to provide professional interpretors and translations of statements
both during the investigation and during the hearings. These were
conducted in Spanish, the official language of Equatorial Guinea.

The small country of 500,00 people consists of Bioko, a mountainous
volcanic island formally known as Fernando Poo, and a nearby block of
jungle-covered territory on the African continent. It was ruled by
Spain until independence in 1968.

Castro said some of the defendants' claims of torture "were not even
translated into Spanish by the interpretor, who was biased. " She
noted that he was the Attorney General's official interpretor.

The Amnesty observer also noted that one of the South African
defendants in court spoke only Portuguese. The court was not aware of
this and had not provided an interpretor, she added. A Russian
interpretor was provided for the Armenian defendants. A delegation
from Yerevan is currently in Equatorial Guinea discussing their fate.

Castro and Ellis both lamented that the prosecution had failed to
present any evidence to substantiate the charges, bar the defendants'
own statements.

"Weapons produced by the prosecution were shown as examples of the
type of guns they intended to buy in Zimbabwe," Castro said.

She said no warrants had been issued for the arrest of the accused
and their statements had been taken by the attorney general, not by
investigating magistrate as prescribed by the country's own legal
system.

The IBA stressed the fact that the court had broken Equatorial
Guinea's own judicial rules by deciding two weeks ago to also place
on trial nine exiled opposition leaders in absentia alongside the
original defendants.

It was unclear whether any of these individuals who were tried in
their absence had been informed of the charges against them and
whether any effort had been made to bring them before the court,
Ellis said.

Severo Moto, the Spanish-based leader of a government-in-exile, was
sentenced to 63 years in jail at the trial. It was the third time
that a court in Equatorial Guinea had convicted him of political
offences and imposed a prison sentence on Moto in his absence

The accused were found guilty of preparing the way for an abortive
mercenary invasion last March by a planeload of mercenaries who were
intercepted in Zimbabwe on their way to Malabo.

The plane, carrying 67 mainly South African mercenaries, was
prevented from reaching Equatorial Guinea after it was detained
during a stopover in Harare to pick up weapons.

Although many of the defendants in the trial in Malabo were sentenced
to long prison terms, the court ignored prosecution calls for the
death sentence to be imposed against du Toit, the alleged leader of a
mercenary group already placed inside in the country, and Moto, the
exiled opposition leader who would allegedly have become president
had the coup succeeded.

Obiang, the present head of state, has been widely accused of
corruption and human rights abuse. He has ruled Equatorial Guinea
since he deposed and killed his uncle, Macias Nguema, in a 1979 coup,
accumulating considerable personal wealth from oil revenues which
have poured in over the past decade.

Equatorial Guinea now produces 350,000 barrels per day of oil and has
become Africa's third-biggest oil producer after Nigeria and Angola.

The state prosecutor alleged during the trial that plot to overthrow
Obiang and install Moto in his place, had received support and
finance from prominent individuals in South Africa, Britain and
Spain, including Mark Thatcher, the son of former British prime
minister Margaret Thatcher.