January 14, 2005
Thatcher's Son Pleads Guilty in Coup Plot, Avoiding Prison
JOHANNESBURG, Jan. 13 - Sir Mark Thatcher, the son of a British political legend who became mired last year in a bizarre coup plot in Equatorial Guinea, abandoned his claims of innocence on Thursday and pleaded guilty in a Cape Town Court to helping finance mercenaries who were behind the failed putsch.
But as part of a plea agreement that spared him a potential prison sentence, Sir Mark, who is a hereditary baronet, maintained that his role was unwitting and that he believed he was investing $275,000 in a helicopter service for a mining venture until he began to doubt the project's true goals in January 2004.
The coup attempt collapsed spectacularly that March, as the Equatorial Guinea security police broke up a network of 20 people suspected of plotting the overthrow and the Zimbabwe police arrested 70 more at the Harare airport as the mercenaries' jet landed to pick up a weapons shipment.
Most of them are now in prison, including the man accused of being the mastermind of the plot, Simon Mann, a former British Special Forces soldier, longtime mercenary and Sir Mark's Cape Town neighbor and friend.
On Thursday, Sir Mark, 51, admitted violating South Africa's Foreign Military Assistance Act, which bars civilians from involvement in military activities abroad without government permission. He was fined three million rand, about $500,000, and given a four-year suspended prison sentence.
He was expected to leave immediately for the United States, where his American-born wife and their two children have lived since the South African police arrested him in August. George van Niekerk, a member of his legal team, wrote in a statement that Sir Mark "will continue to cooperate, to the limited extent of his knowledge," with a South African inquiry into mercenary activity tied to the coup.
The statement allowed that Sir Mark "should have exercised more caution" in his investment, but otherwise denied any intentional wrongdoing. Sir Mark's lawyers declined to comment further on the record.
The plea agreement was nevertheless an ignominious admission for Sir Mark, the son of Lady Thatcher, the former prime minister who dominated British politics for much of the 1980's. Sir Mark's legal team had dismissed charges against him as "nonsense" after his arrest in August.
The agreement was also a symbolic victory for South Africa's government, which has long been accused of failing to enforce its laws regulating mercenaries. Decades of southern African conflict in the late 20th century made South Africa a training ground for soldiers of fortune. Executive Outcomes, a now-defunct South African mercenary company organized by Mr. Mann, was the template for many of the for-profit armies operating today in trouble spots like Iraq.
In the plea agreement and in the lawyer's public statement, Sir Mark was cast as a sidelines player in a sprawling effort to unseat Equatorial Guinea's president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the unchallenged ruler of a nation almost the size of Maryland that would have gone unnoticed if offshore gushers had not turned it into one of Africa's largest oil producers lately.
The plea agreement states only that Sir Mark, a licensed helicopter pilot, was approached by Mr. Mann in November 2003 for help in finding a helicopter for a mining venture in Guinea Bisseau. Sir Mark located a helicopter, but Mr. Mann rejected it as inadequate, and told Sir Mark in December that he had found a better-suited one for Sir Mark to lease.
"At this stage," the agreement states, Sir Mark "began to doubt Mann's true intentions and suspected that Mann might be planning to become involved in mercenary activity." His doubts aside, Sir Mark invested money in the operation, only to lose it when the coup imploded.