A Zimbabwean court jailed a former British special services officer for seven years Friday in a case prosecutors linked to a foiled coup attempt in the oil-rich country of Equatorial Guinea.
Simon Mann, 51, had pleaded guilty to attempting to buy weapons from Zimbabwe's state arms manufacturer, but he has insisted that the arms were to be used for guarding mining operations in eastern Congo.
State prosecutors had sought to connect Mann with 14 mercenaries on trial in Equatorial Guinea on charges of trying to oust Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the longtime president of the tiny West African country.
The Zimbabwean court also jailed 65 suspected mercenaries, all South African citizens, for 12 months on related charges. The two pilots of a plane carrying the suspected mercenaries that was seized at the Harare airport in March were sentenced to 16 months.
Magistrate Mishrod Guvamombe made no reference to the coup plot when passing sentence.
Defense attorneys said they would not appeal.
Mark Thatcher, son of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, was arrested last month in South Africa on suspicion of helping bankroll the plot.
Guvamombe said Mann would serve four years for trying to buy weapons that included antitank missiles, hand grenades and assault rifles as well as three years for trying to buy them without a license.
"Both offenses in my view are serious. Both offenses were well planned and well executed, and that must be reflected in the sentence," he said.
Mann founded two security firms that became bywords for mercenary activity across Africa in the 1990s, using the expertise he had gained as an officer in Britain's Special Air Service. He is expected to serve his sentence in the crowded, high-security Chikurubi prison, where the trial was held.
Distraught relatives of the men wept outside the makeshift courtroom after the ruling was handed down.
"I am devastated. I can't believe it. They have already done six months, and with this sentence, it is now 18 months," said a weeping Marge Pain, whose husband was on the plane.
The trial of the 14 suspected mercenaries underway in Equatorial Guinea, sub-Saharan Africa's third-biggest oil producer, is due to resume Oct. 1, after investigators visit South Africa to observe Mark Thatcher's trial. The court will question Thatcher, who was freed on $300,000 bail, on Sept. 22.
Thatcher has denied involvement in any coup plot.