It is listed in one of the world’s top ten most notorious jails. Just the name Black Beach sends shivers down the spine of any convicted felon. The jail in Malabo, in Equatorial Guinea in central Africa has a gruesome reputation. Torture and starvation of inmates is said to be routine.
The human rights organization Amnesty International describes incarceration in the prison as “a slow, lingering death sentence”. One political campaigner from the country, released in 2006 said bluntly. “Prisoners are tortured and just disappear and die. They weight their bodies with rocks and throw them in the sea. Their families never know what happened to them.”
Equatorial Guinea is run by the iron-fist of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who seized power in a coup in 1979. Human rights groups say Mr Obiang’s corrupt regime is one of the worst abusers of rights in Africa. His reputation is fierce and he is said to enjoy eating the brains and testicles of his political opponents.
This gruesome fate is unlikely to meet Black Beach’s most famous current inmate, the British mercenary Simon Mann, who had admitted to being central to an international plot in 2004 to overthrow the government of this oil-rich state. In his show trial this week, Mann pleaded guilty to being a member of a coup attempt to replace Mr Obiang with Severo Moto, an exiled opposition leader living in Spain.
It was back in March 2004 that Mann and 69 South African mercenaries were arrested at Harare airport with a plane load of arms en route to Equatorial Guinea. Mann, who is a soldier of fortune, was educated at Britain’s top private school, Eton and later joined the country’s most elite regiment, the SAS. He was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in Zimbabwe, which was subsequently reduced to four, although he was then transferred to Black Beach earlier this year.
The bespectacled Mann has consistently tried to underplay his importance in the coup with a view of getting a reduced sentence. His friends try and portray him as an “English gentleman”. One profile of Mann on the BBC last week, included the quote calling him a “humane man, but an adventurer… very English, a romantic, tremendously good company”.
Even his defence lawyer claimed last week that a “gentleman” who had collaborated with the court “out of a sincere desire to repair the damage done to our people”. But this “English gentleman” has also managed to get privileged treatment at prison, having his own his own cell, an exercise machine, books and magazines. He is allowed to make regular calls home and is said to lunch most days with the country’s Minister of Security, with special food and wine delivered to the prison.
The simple fact is that Mann collaborated with the Equatorial Guinean regime as he does not want to spend years rotting in an African jail. Mann has claimed that his collaboration is out of concern for the people of Equatorial Guinea. But the bottom line is that he is a hired killer who has made millions out of being a soldier of fortune in Africa and elsewhere.
In the early nineties he set up Executive Outcomes that made millions protecting oil installations from rebels in Angola. He then set up another company, Sandline International, which shipped arms to Sierra Leone in flagrant contravention of a UN embargo.
As part of his strategy to gain freedom, Mann has named what he called the main backers of the plot, who remain at large. Speaking in court, Mann alleged Ely Calil, the British-based secretive Lebanese tycoon, was known to the coup team as “the cardinal”. “Calil was very much the boss. So nothing could happen without Calil telling me yes or no,” Mann told the trial. Calil, who is reported to have invested more than $700,000 in the coup attempt, has always denied the allegations.
Another person named by Mann is Mark Thatcher, son of Britain’s ex-Prime Minister. Thatcher met Mann when they both lived in South Africa. Thatcher was arrested after the aborted coup, where he struck a plea bargain with the South African authorities, fined $450,000 and given a four-year suspended sentence for “unwittingly” investing in the plot.
A rather unflattering profile of Thatcher in the British press recently said he was “Famous for getting lost during the Paris-Dakar motor rally and making his mother cry in public, notorious for shamelessly exploiting her name to further dodgy business ventures, renowned for his rudeness, arrogance and pomposity, and no stranger to controversy, but none of his previous dubious escapades can compare with his reckless involvement in an ill-fated plot to oust the offal-loving president of Equatorial Guinea.”
Thatcher, like Mann, has always tried to downplay his involvement in the coup too. When Thatcher was arrested in South Africa, he said: “I have no involvement in any alleged coup in Equatorial Guinea and I reject totally all suggestions to the contrary.”
Giving evidence last week, Mann contradicted this by saying Thatcher was “not just an investor. He came on board completely and became part of the management team.” Leaked documents suggest Thatcher was involved, something the plotters wanted to keep quiet. One document, that looked at “threats”, was headed by the initials “MT”, which the South African police argue stood for March Thatcher. It said: “If involvement known, rest of us, and project, likely to be screwed as a side- issue to people screwing him. Would particularly add to a campaign, post-event, to remove us.”
Moreover, telephone records obtained by a private detective working for the government of Equatorial Guinea, show Mark Thatcher and Mann speaking “with increasing frequency” in the days before the coup.
Other documents uncovered by the South African security services show the extent to which the coup plotters were going to exploit the resources of Equatorial Guinea. The plotters actually set up a trading company after the coup, called the Bight of Benin Company (BBC). The company would have controlled the country’s economy, its oil reserves, army and police, as a “private fiefdom”, modeled on the British colonial company the East India Company.
The documents suggest that BBC was to have “sole right to have physical or other access” to the new president Moto. It would have been the only company that could “make agreements or contracts” with the new regime.
The plotters also knew about how they would have to spin their coup to the outside world. They planned a massive public relations exercise to avoid “unfavourable scrutiny”. Part of this campaign would have been to trick the outside world that the new regime would be “transparent” over its policies, including on human rights. However this “transparency” campaign was to be followed by one of “disinformation” to convince outsiders that the Americans were behind the coup, and therefore to “back off.”
“It is potentially a very lucrative game,” one document said: “We should expect bad behaviour; disloyalty; rampant individual greed; irrational behaviour (kids in toyshop type); back-stabbing … and similar ungentlemanly activities.”
The truth is that, despite how supporters are trying to spin this story, Mann is no gentleman. He is a soldier of war. Mark Thatcher is no gentleman either; his controversial business career in arms and oil has been linked with scandal. In the early eighties Thatcher was rumoured to have been paid a $2 million commission for the construction of a university in Oman, which had been negotiated by his mother, then Prime Minster. Three years later, he was said to have received $24 million from the biggest arms deal in history, the $80 billion Al-Yamamah deal with Saudi Arabia, also signed by his mother.
President Obiang’s government has now issued an international warrant for Thatcher, who the President calls a “dirty player who lives his life getting himself involved in all sorts of dubious deals that are of benefit to himself.” Thatcher remains in hiding in a secure gated resident in South Spain. He is said to be running out of places to hide: South Africa has evicted him, the US would arrest him, France and Switzerland have said he is not welcome.
If Thatcher is arrested, the chances of a fair trial in Equatorial Guinea are as remote as free and fair elections in Zimbabwe. But it is time the world really found out how the son of a British Prime Minister helped finance this dirty plot and his exact involvement.
Maybe Thatcher should volunteer to be tried in neutral country. If convicted though he should not be given any privileged treatment. Neither should Mann when he is sentenced. Both men were reportedly set to make millions from this venture. They both gambled and they lost.
As Mann has said, “You go tiger shooting and you don’t expect the tiger to win.” Well this time the tiger won. They can sit there together with their tails between their legs.