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Coup Trial in African State Mirrors Novel

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  • Coup Trial in African State Mirrors Novel

    Coup Trial in African State Mirrors Novel

    .c The Associated Press

    MALABO, Equatorial Guinea (AP) - Frederick Forsyth wrote it up as
    ``The Dogs of War,'' and set it here: A ragtag band of mercenaries,
    recruited by a British elite, tries to seize control of a
    mineral-rich, African backwater.

    Forsyth - writing during a Cold War stay three decades ago on this
    palm-lashed volcanic island capital - rechristened Equatorial Guinea
    as ``Zangoro'' for the thriller, and put his soldiers of fortune in
    quest of platinum, not oil.

    Despite those broad variations, the basic plot is playing out again
    here as a trial unfolds for 19 South Africans, Armenians and others
    accused of a failed plot to overthrow the government of Equatorial
    Guinea, Africa's No. 3 oil producer.

    Equatorial Guinea insists this time it is fact, not pulp fiction. The
    country has been emboldened by the arrest in recent days of Mark
    Thatcher in South Africa, and the Zimbabwe conviction of famed
    Eton-educated mercenary Simon Mann in connection with the alleged coup
    plot. It accuses Thatcher, son of the former British prime minister,
    and his London friends of scheming to replace President Teodoro
    Obiang's 25-year-old regime with a puppet government.

    Star witness Nick du Toit, a South African arms dealer, appears to be
    ``an intermediary between the mercenaries and the financiers,''
    Attorney General Jose Olo Obono, who is leading the prosecution, told
    reporters. Du Toit, who faces the death penalty for his role in the
    plot, has cooperated with prosecutors.

    For the elites in the novel, a coup has an allure beyond any
    run-of-the-mill robbery.

    ``Knocking off a bank or an armored truck is merely crude. Knocking
    off an entire republic has, I feel, a certain style,'' Forsyth's
    coup-plotter, Sir James Mason, observes in the fictional version.

    Prosecutors say the real coup plot fell apart in March, when security
    forces in Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea, tipped off by South Africa's
    intelligence service, arrested 90 suspected mercenaries as they were
    allegedly moving into position to seize power.

    So far, prosecutors have built their entire case on the testimony of
    du Toit - and skepticism that the Cold War- and apartheid-era veterans
    he recruited came to this oil-rich nation for the fishing and
    agriculture opportunities, as they claim.

    Equatorial Guinea says du Toit was the advance man for Mann, the
    plot's alleged mastermind, and Mann's alleged British associates -
    including Thatcher, financier Eli Calil, and businessman Greg
    Wales. Equatorial Guinea reportedly has filed a civil case against
    alleged British backers in London, and says it is pursuing its own
    international warrants against them.

    Other evidence cited by Equatorial Guinea out of court - such as a
    note sent out of prison by Mann, allegedly seeking help from Thatcher,
    Calil and others - has yet to be introduced at the trial.

    Some of the suspects say their confessions were obtained under
    torture, which the U.S. State Department and others say is routine
    here. One of the original 90 defendants, a German, died in his first
    days of custody after what Amnesty International said was torture.

    In court on Monday, South African Jose Cardoso testified that he was
    physically abused - or ``shocked'' - and that interrogators invented
    his confession. ``Is it normal for statements to be taken as you're
    being taken to the torture room, to be tortured, as I was?'' Cardoso
    said, gesturing with chained hands.

    Du Toit's wife, Belinda, who is attending the trial, also claims he
    was tortured. She shows a photo of her husband before he left South
    Africa for Equatorial Guinea, looking trim, prosperous and
    relaxed. The Nick du Toit testifying in chains is 60 pounds thinner,
    his face gaunt, hair and beard shaggy, clothes hanging off him.

    President Obiang, whose tiny nation of 500,000 pumps roughly $15
    million in oil daily, has engaged European public-relations firms and
    lawyers to advise him on the conduct of the trial. The British and
    French lawyers, who refuse to be identified, are the ones who
    intervened to let journalists watch the proceedings.

    Obiang's government faces deep suspicions over the impartiality of the
    eventual verdicts in his country, which the International Bar
    Association and others say is essentially an enterprise of Obiang's
    tribe, with a suppressed opposition and no independent radio or press.

    Forsyth's thriller, and its coincidentally overlapping plot, hangs
    over the courtroom at times. Obono referred to du Toit as a ``dog of
    war'' not only in the courtroom but in the criminal charges
    themselves. In a 1988 coup attempt, mere possession of Forsyth's book
    was enough to net one soldier's conviction here.

    Diplomats and rights groups monitoring the trial daily cite the
    suspected torture and shortcomings of the trial, which is being
    translated from Spanish - the official language - for the Afrikaners,
    Armenians and other foreigners on trial. Local defense lawyers,
    compelled by the government to represent the 19, met their clients
    only the day before the trial and complain of intimidation.

    Du Toit is the only defendant facing the death penalty, and the
    government has raised the prospect of a possible presidential pardon
    for him. A member of Equatorial Guinea's security services suggested a
    different fate, however, approaching Belinda du Toit in court one day
    and drawing a hand across his throat, she said.

    In fiction, ``The Dogs of War'' ends disastrously for the mercenaries,
    with their plot collapsed and mercenaries dead. Ultimately, Nick du
    Toit believes the real-life end will be different.

    ``He believes he's coming home,'' his wife said.

    08/30/04 13:53 EDT