Fri, Nov 26, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Thatcher ordered to court

ALLEGED SCHEME The son of the former British prime minister will be questioned under oath by prosecutors on whether he helped plot against Equatorial Guinea

AFP , Cape Town

A South African magistrate yesterday ordered Mark Thatcher to return to court on April 8 to face charges that he helped finance an alleged coup plot in Equatorial Guinea.

Thatcher, son of Britain's former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, briefly appeared in a magistrate's court in Cape Town but was not asked to enter a plea to charges that he violated South Africa's anti-mercenary law.

Thatcher's strict bail conditions were extended until the April hearing, meaning that the son of the Iron Lady will be confined to the Cape Town area for the next five months.

Thatcher paid two million rand (US$300,000) in bail nine days after his arrest on Aug. 25 in Cape Town and agreed to hand over his passport and report daily to the police.

He is accused of contributing US$275,000 to help finance the alleged plot to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who has ruled Equatorial Guinea for 25 years. If convicted, Thatcher could face a fine or 15 years in jail, or both.

Magistrate Awie Kotze ordered the case to be pushed back to April at the request of the prosecution which said investigators needed more time to complete their probe.

Thatcher's lawyers did not oppose the request.

Thatcher suffered a setback on Wednesday when the Cape High Court ruled that he must answer questions from Equatorial Guinea on the coup plot, upholding a decision made by the justice minister to assist Malabo in its probe of the conspiracy.

He is to provide answers under oath during a hearing scheduled for today although his lawyers said they were still weighing a possible appeal of the decision.

"We will make a decision later ... on what will happen around the issue of questions," said Thatcher's lawyer Alan Bruce-Brand.

If the hearing goes ahead today, it would be the first time that Thatcher would give testimony on his alleged involvement in the conspiracy that is said to implicate other senior British officials.

Thatcher is accused of violating the Foreign Military Assistance Act that was signed into law in 1998 as part of post-apartheid South Africa's bid to shed its reputation as Africa's largest purveyor of mercenaries.

Thatcher's lawyers have repeatedly denied that he helped bankroll the alleged coup plot and maintain that the funds paid by Thatcher were an investment in an air ambulance venture for west Africa.

But prosecutors in Equatorial Guinea say the cash was used to purchase a helicopter that was to fly opposition leader Severo Moto, currently living in exile in Spain, from Mali to Malabo once Obiang had been deposed.

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