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Coup Trial in African State Mirrors Book

The Associated Press
Monday, August 30, 2004; 1:52 PM

MALABO, Equatorial Guinea - Frederick Forsyth wrote it up as "The Dogs of War," and set it here: A ragtag band of mercenaries, recruited by a British elite, tries to seize control of a mineral-rich, African backwater.

Forsyth - writing during a Cold War stay three decades ago on this palm-lashed volcanic island capital - rechristened Equatorial Guinea as "Zangoro" for the thriller, and put his soldiers of fortune in quest of platinum, not oil.

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Despite those broad variations, the basic plot is playing out again here as a trial unfolds for 19 South Africans, Armenians and others accused of a failed plot to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea, Africa's No. 3 oil producer.

Equatorial Guinea insists this time it is fact, not pulp fiction. The country has been emboldened by the arrest in recent days of Mark Thatcher in South Africa, and the Zimbabwe conviction of famed Eton-educated mercenary Simon Mann in connection with the alleged coup plot. It accuses Thatcher, son of the former British prime minister, and his London friends of scheming to replace President Teodoro Obiang's 25-year-old regime with a puppet government.

Star witness Nick du Toit, a South African arms dealer, appears to be "an intermediary between the mercenaries and the financiers," Attorney General Jose Olo Obono, who is leading the prosecution, told reporters. Du Toit, who faces the death penalty for his role in the plot, has cooperated with prosecutors.

For the elites in the novel, a coup has an allure beyond any run-of-the-mill robbery.

"Knocking off a bank or an armored truck is merely crude. Knocking off an entire republic has, I feel, a certain style," Forsyth's coup-plotter, Sir James Mason, observes in the fictional version.

Prosecutors say the real coup plot fell apart in March, when security forces in Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea, tipped off by South Africa's intelligence service, arrested 90 suspected mercenaries as they were allegedly moving into position to seize power.

So far, prosecutors have built their entire case on the testimony of du Toit - and skepticism that the Cold War- and apartheid-era veterans he recruited came to this oil-rich nation for the fishing and agriculture opportunities, as they claim.

Equatorial Guinea says du Toit was the advance man for Mann, the plot's alleged mastermind, and Mann's alleged British associates - including Thatcher, financier Eli Calil, and businessman Greg Wales. Equatorial Guinea reportedly has filed a civil case against alleged British backers in London, and says it is pursuing its own international warrants against them.

Other evidence cited by Equatorial Guinea out of court - such as a note sent out of prison by Mann, allegedly seeking help from Thatcher, Calil and others - has yet to be introduced at the trial.

Some of the suspects say their confessions were obtained under torture, which the U.S. State Department and others say is routine here. One of the original 90 defendants, a German, died in his first days of custody after what Amnesty International said was torture.

In court on Monday, South African Jose Cardoso testified that he was physically abused - or "shocked" - and that interrogators invented his confession. "Is it normal for statements to be taken as you're being taken to the torture room, to be tortured, as I was?" Cardoso said, gesturing with chained hands.

Du Toit's wife, Belinda, who is attending the trial, also claims he was tortured. She shows a photo of her husband before he left South Africa for Equatorial Guinea, looking trim, prosperous and relaxed. The Nick du Toit testifying in chains is 60 pounds thinner, his face gaunt, hair and beard shaggy, clothes hanging off him.

President Obiang, whose tiny nation of 500,000 pumps roughly $15 million in oil daily, has engaged European public-relations firms and lawyers to advise him on the conduct of the trial. The British and French lawyers, who refuse to be identified, are the ones who intervened to let journalists watch the proceedings.

Obiang's government faces deep suspicions over the impartiality of the eventual verdicts in his country, which the International Bar Association and others say is essentially an enterprise of Obiang's tribe, with a suppressed opposition and no independent radio or press.

Forsyth's thriller, and its coincidentally overlapping plot, hangs over the courtroom at times. Obono referred to du Toit as a "dog of war" not only in the courtroom but in the criminal charges themselves. In a 1988 coup attempt, mere possession of Forsyth's book was enough to net one soldier's conviction here.

Diplomats and rights groups monitoring the trial daily cite the suspected torture and shortcomings of the trial, which is being translated from Spanish - the official language - for the Afrikaners, Armenians and other foreigners on trial. Local defense lawyers, compelled by the government to represent the 19, met their clients only the day before the trial and complain of intimidation.

Du Toit is the only defendant facing the death penalty, and the government has raised the prospect of a possible presidential pardon for him. A member of Equatorial Guinea's security services suggested a different fate, however, approaching Belinda du Toit in court one day and drawing a hand across his throat, she said.

In fiction, "The Dogs of War" ends disastrously for the mercenaries, with their plot collapsed and mercenaries dead. Ultimately, Nick du Toit believes the real-life end will be different.

"He believes he's coming home," his wife said.

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