Trial of Armenian Mercenaries Halted Pending Investigation From Abroad

LIBREVILLE (allAfrica.com)–A court in Equatorial Guinea on Tuesday suspended the trial of 14 suspected foreign mercenaries who are accused of trying to topple the president–because more time was needed to weigh evidence from abroad–witnesses said.

The 14 defendants–eight South Africans and six Armenia’s–were arrested in Malabo on March 6. They were charged with paving the way for a planeload of South African mercenaries who were arrested 24 hours later in Zimbabwe–allegedly on their way to Equatorial Guinea.

Since the trial kicked off last Monday only one of the defendants–South African arms dealer Nick du Toit–had admitted taking part in the coup plot against President Teodoro Obiang Nguema in the tiny oil-rich state split between a square of mainland jungle and a volcanic island.

"The trial has been suspended to wait for outside elemen’s," Celestino Edou–an adviser to the mayor of Malabo–told IRIN by telephone from the capital after watching the court proceedings.

The judge did not say when proceedings would resume–he said.

The prosecution–which has demanded the death penalty for du Toit–asked for the indefinite suspension in light of evidence emerging from outside Equatorial Guinea–like last week’s arrest of Mark Thatcher in South Africa.

Authorities in Equatorial Guinea have asked for permission to interview the 51-year-old son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher–who they suspect helped finance the plot to overthrow Obiang with the aim of installing exiled opposition leader Severo Moto.

The government has also requested international arrest warran’s for Moto and other suspects including Greg Wales–a London-based businessman and Elie Khalil–an international oil dealer of Lebanese origin.

But observers within the Equatorial Guinea government and civil groups say the trial has really been suspended because the prosecution realized that it could not convict Du Toit and his 13 co-defendants.

"Most of the elemen’s brought forward to prove the mercenaries’ guilt have not been able to link them strongly enough to the attempted coup d’etat to impose the maximum penalties," a senior official in the Ministry of Information told IRIN by telephone.

And Ange Ichaito–a human rights advocate–agreed the prosecution had presented a weak case.

"The Malabo trial–which was only supposed to last three days–has still not come up with details of how each of the suspects was involved in the attempt to topple Obiang’s regime," he said.

Last Friday all but one of the 67 suspected mercenaries held in Zimbabwe were absolved of attempting to procure arms for the alleged coup in the former Spanish colony which is Africa’s third-largest oil producer.

Residents in Malabo quoted state radio as saying that Friday’s acquittal had seriously influenced the Malabo judge’s decision to suspend the trial.

Obiang–who came to power by executing his uncle in a 1979 coup–has been widely accused of spending Equatorial Guinea’s oil wealth on his own family and friends while leaving the country’s 500,000 inhabitants in a state of dire poverty.

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