Lawyers make final appeal for release of ‘mercenaries’ in Zimbabwe

Agence France Presse — English
August 20, 2004 Friday 2:12 PM GMT

Lawyers make final appeal for release of ‘mercenaries’ in Zimbabwe


Lawyers representing 70 suspected mercenaries held on charges of
plotting a coup in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea asked a Zimbabwe court
to acquit most of the men in a final appeal.

The men were arrested in March when their Boeing 727 landed in Harare
to pick up a consignment of weapons, including rifles, grenades,
rocket-launchers and mortar bombs which Zimbabwe says were to be used
to overthrow the regime in Equatorial Guinea.

In his closing arguments, defense lawyer Jonathan Samkange said
charges of “conspiracy to possess dangerous weapons” against 66 of
the men should be dropped as the alleged soldiers of fortune knew
nothing of the arms purchases in Harare.

“The charge is incompetent and therefore I ask that the accused be
acquitted on that basis,” said Samkange.

Magistrate Mishrod Guvamombe ajourned the trial until August 27 but
gave no indication as to whether a verdict would be handed down at
that hearing.

The trial opened on July 27 at a makeshift court in the Chikurubi
maximum security prison where the men have been held since their
arrest almost six months ago.

The detained group included three crew members, and three men on the
ground who allegedly went to Harare International Airport to inspect
the firearms to be purchased from Zimbabwe’s state arms manufacturer.

The court has heard that the weapons were needed to guard diamond
mines in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where most
of men claim they were going to do security work after being
recruited in South Africa.

But Zimbabwe has accused them of plotting to overthrow President
Teodoro Obiang Nguema’s 25-year regime in the small central African
state of Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony.

Eight other South Africans and six Armenians are due to go on trial
in Equatorial Guinea’s capital Malabo on Monday, charged with taking
part in an advance force that was to be later joined by the ‘Harare
70’ to carry out the coup.

State prosecutor Lawrence Phiri argued the men could not have
possibly been going on ordinary security duties considering the
manner they behaved at Harare airport, the nature of the equipment
they were supposed to collect and some of the documents and supplies
found on their plane.

The group stayed on board an aircraft with no cabin lights, remained
silent with some of them even lying down on the aisle, to avoid
detection, according to Phiri, obeying instructions that were
contained on a piece of paper allegedly found on the plane.

Phiri also argued that some items found on the plane such as
camouflage cream and survival kits could not possibly be for use by
security guards.

He said mortar bombs and grenades could not have been used for
guarding mines.

“These items are exclusively of military use, not for a security
company,” he said.

“One is inclined to conclude that in fact these persons knew that
whatever expedition they were going on, was illegal,” Phiri argued.

Some of the men have testified that they knew nothing about landing
in Harare to pick up weapons, and Samkange argued Friday that they
could therefore not be charged with conspiracy.

Samkange said the state should have called witnesses from South
Africa to say whether a meeting took place to discuss and agree on
the conspiracy.

“In this case there is deafening silence as regards the form of
agreement, and the court cannot therefore find any way of convicting
these people,” he added.

“I would ask this court to act judiciously and when it acts
judiciously and in fairness to all parties, it has no option but to
acquit the accused,” said Samkange.

“It is wrong to suggest that there was any conspiracy,” he said.

If convicted under Zimbabwe’s Public Order and Security Act (POSA)
the men could face a 10-year jail term.