Armenian Pilots on Trial in E. Guinea ‘Mercenary’ Case

MALABO (Combined Sources)–Fourteen suspected mercenaries accused of plotting to topple the long-time leader of Equatorial Guinea–President Teodoro Obiang Nguema–went on trial Monday on charges ranging from treason to terrorism.

The eight South Africans and six Armenia’s were charged along with four Equato-Guineans–including former economic planning minister Antonio Javier Nguema Nchama–with "crimes against the head of state–against the form of government" and "crimes which compromise peace and independence of the state–treason–illegal possession of arms and ammunition–terrorism and possessing explosives."

The involvement of the Equato-Guineans in the alleged plot to topple Obiang–who has ruled the tiny central African state since 1979–was not mentined until the court case got under way.

Obiang announced the arrests of the alleged mercenaries in early March–saying they had been hired by exiled opposition leader Severo Moto to oust him.

Hand-cuffed and in leg-irons–the accused were brought by military vehicles to the international conference hall in Banapa–a suburb of Malabo–which has been transformed into a makeshift courtroom for the trial.

Around 80 people–including two of the suspected mercenaries’ wives–human rights activists and foreign diplomats were in the public gallery for the trial.

The South African and Armenian suspects have been held at Malabo’s notorious Black Beach prison since March. Their arrests coincided almost to the day with that of 70 suspected mercenaries detained at Harare airport following a tip-off from the South African government.

The Armenia’s were expected to plead not guilty to the accusations ranging from coup d’etat to terrorism. Armenian diplomats who visited them earlier this year say they strongly deny any involvement in the alleged conspiracy to topple Obiang who has been in power since 1979. Their claims of innocence are fully backed by official Yerevan.

"Accusations leveled against our pilots so far are nonsensical and absurd in a certain sense," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamlet Gasparian reiterated on Monday. "They are all groundless."

The pilots working for a private Armenian carrier were arrested along with nine other foreigners after their Antonov-12 plane–reportedly chartered by a German firm–landed in Malabo in March. The government of the former Spanish colony maintains that they were all an advance party of a larger group of "mercenaries" arrested in Zimbabwe earlier.

The men in Equatorial Guinea–led by South African Nick du Toit–were allegedly an advance group responsible for the preparations of the coup d’etat before the arrival of the 70 suspected soldiers of fortune who took off from South Africa and stopped in Zimbabwe to pick up weapons.

Family members of the men held in Equatorial Guinea say the suspects have been tortured.

Fifteen foreign suspects were arrested on March 6 in Malabo–but one–German Eugen Nershz–died on March 17–with the Equato-Guinean authorities saying the cause of death was cerebral malaria.

But Amnesty International has said Nershz "died… apparently as a result of torture."

Three more men have since contracted malaria. Two have recovered but a third is still ill.

Gasparian said the health condition of the Armenian pilots led by Captain Ashot Karapetian is "normal" and they are hoping for a quick return to their homeland. "Information which we have at the moment gives us reason to expect a positive solution soon," the official told RFE/RL. "All the documen’s show that they were simply the pilots of a commercial plane that was making flights into that country."

Gasparian added that the trial is followed by Armenian diplomats–including the Cairo-based Ambassador Sergey Manaserian–who arrived in Equatorial Guinea a week ago. Manaserian and other officials already visited Malabo in May and were allowed to meet with the detained Armenia’s. The envoy also passed on to Obiang letters from President Robert Kocharian and Catholicos Karekin II calling for their release.

The men have for most of their incarceration been held incommunicado–according to Amnesty International–and two wives from South Africa were only allowed to visit them for the first time earlier this month.

A verdict is expected next week–defence lawyer Lucie Bourthomieux said.

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