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Suspected Mercenaries to be Charged in South Africa

16 May 2005

South Africa will charge a total of 64 men who were arrested and jailed last year in Zimbabwe, while apparently enroute to Equatorial Guinea to participate in a botched coup. Those to be charged include 61 released this past weekend and deported to South Africa.

South Africa says it has compelling evidence that all the men, one of whom is still in Zimbabwe were involved, to a greater or lesser degree, in the plan to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea last year. But Makhosini Nkosi of the National Prosecuting Authority or NPA, told VOA it is likely that most, if not all the men to be charged in this batch, had little to do with the planning of the coup attempt.

"And respectfully we see these people, the 64 people who are going to be charged, as having been foot soldiers, really," he said. "Although there may be some among them who were involved in the planning, we would determine that as the case progresses."

The National Prosecuting Authority, commonly known as the Scorpions, is modeled on the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States. And Mr. Nkosi told VOA that the Scorpions are really interested in the people who planned and organized the plot - much of that work done on South African soil.

Those targets include Simon Mann, who must still serve four more years in Zimbabwe's maximum security prison. But Mr. Nkosi says there are still more who the Scorpions would like to see prosecuted, whether in South Africa or elsewhere.

"There are other people, I would not be at liberty to mention their names, there are other people outside the Republic of South Africa and there are people who were involved in this coup attempt, but who never set foot in South Africa therefore we would not have jurisdiction over them," said Mr. Mann. "And for such people we would communicate our knowledge to the various governments in the countries that they reside."

Under the former apartheid government, foreign mercenaries often acted with impunity from within South Africa - hatching plots and launching coups from South African soil. The practice continued in defiance of government warnings after 1994, prompting the government in 1998 to create a new law, the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act, to deal with these cases. While there have been some other cases, mostly of individuals, this is the first case involving an attempted coup and the government hopes it will send a stern warning for those considering such actions in the future.

The men to be charged will appear in court in the next 20 days on a date to be agreed between the Scorpions and the accused men's attorneys.

Those released this weekend, spent nearly a week longer than their original sentence behind bars while the Zimbabwe government decided how to deport them. Mr. Nkosi said it was decided to give them some time with their families before hauling them before the courts.

"We are sensitive to the needs and the frustration of their families," he said. "We are aware of the suspense, the trauma perhaps and the anxiety that accompanied the stay of these men in Zimbabwe and how that affected their families. We are a caring prosecuting authority, we act in the interests of the public, we act in the interests of communities, and we believe that generally the people of South Africa would not fault us in that decision [to wait]."

Last January, much to the frustration and anger of many South Africans, Mark Thatcher, the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, admitted guilt in a plea bargain and was fined $500,000 for his role in the botched coup. Mr. Nkosi says it is likely that those to be charged next will also be allowed a plea bargain, providing they meet the requirements for one.

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