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Shackles off as Simon Mann faces court over Equatorial Guinea coup plot

The long-awaited trial of the former SAS trooper Simon Mann on charges of plotting a military coup in Equatorial Guinea finally began yesterday, but only after a surreal intermission while a sweating guard frantically tried to locate the key to unlock the defendant's shackles and reporters had been made to swap their shoes for flip-flops.

After these scenes of high farce in the steamy capital, Malabo, the prosecution opened its case, declaring Mr Mann to be the ringleader of the failed putsch and called for a prison sentence of 32 years for the Old Etonian.

"The aim of the plot was to replace President Teodoro Obiang Nguema with opponent Severo Moto, without discounting the possibility of assassinating the President," attorney general, Jose Olo Obono, said.

The offences, he added, merited the death penalty, but this was prohibited under the agreement by which the Mr Mann was extradited from Zimbabwe, where he had been arrested en route to Equatorial Guinea. He went on to name Mark Thatcher as one of the co-conspirators, saying Baroness Thatcher's son had been among the financers of the bid to destabilise the oil-rich west African nation.

Mr Mann, the heir to a brewery fortune, sat perched on a red velour chair in front of the three judges, dressed in a grey prison suit with blue stripes on the back, his hair shot through with white. The chains binding his feet had been removed, after one of the judges refused to hear testimony while a defendant was in shackles, although it took almost half an hour to track down the key.

Charged with "crimes against the head of state, crimes against the government and crimes against the peace and independence of the state", Mr Mann looked pale, nervous and thinner than at his last public appearance. The legal proceedings unfolded in Spanish, a language Mr Mann does not speak, and the promised translation never materialised.

But in a snatched interview with Channel 4 News in the courtroom, he tried to sound upbeat. "I'm like a coiled spring ready to bounce into action," he said.

Jose Pablo Nvo, Mr Mann's counsel, told the marble-walled conference centre serving as a court that his client was not among the principal planners of the coup. "The organisation of the coup could have taken place without Mann. He was a mere instrument," he said. Mr Nvo has said in the past, however, that his client will be found guilty whatever the evidence, as "all the judges are from the family or the party of the President".

The latest chapter in what became known as the Wonga Coup began amid extraordinary security after President Obiang claimed that a fellow plotter was trying to kill Mr Mann. Soldiers, toting machine guns, barricaded streets in the capital and those attending the trial, mostly foreign media, were not allowed to wear long-sleeved shirts and had to exchange their shoes for flip-flops. They were also prevented from taking mobile phones, notebooks or pens into the court.

"We are very much aware of sophisticated gadgets and weaponry which can easily pass undetected and which are very harmful to human beings," said the President, who accused Ely Calil, a London-based alleged fellow coup plotter, of ordering Mr Mann's assassination. "He is trying his very best to ensure he either kills him or kidnaps him from prison. He doesn't want Mann to continue revealing issues or charges which can be levelled against him," he told Channel 4.

Mr Mann was the founder of two security firms – Executive Outcomes and Sandline International – that became bywords for mercenary activity in Africa. He was arrested in 2004 along with 70 other mercenaries, at a military airfield outside the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, where he was due to pick up weapons before proceeding to Malabo.

The plan was to replace President Obiang with Severo Moto Nsa, an opposition leader living in exile in Madrid, after which Mr Mann and his backers expected to get highly lucrative contracts. Eleven members of an advance party sent to Malabo are now serving sentences at Malabo's notorious Black Beach prison. They include Nick Du Toit, one of Mr Mann's chief lieutenants, who was jailed for 34 years.

Mr Mann, 55, has admitted his involvement in the coup attempt, maintaining that he was tricked by Mr Calil, a Lebanese-born businessman, about the situation in Equatorial Guinea. The government is now suing Mr Calil and Sir Mark in the High Court in South Africa, based, it says, on information supplied by Mr Mann. Both men have denied the claims made against them.

Yesterday, however, the spotlight was firmly on Mr Mann, brought to and from the court in an armoured car. Asked about conditions in Black Beach, a prison condemned by human rights groups, he said they were "fine" and that with a glass of wine served to him every lunchtime it was actually "very civilised".

President Obiang has hinted at the possibility of Mr Mann being allowed to serve part of his prison sentence in Britain. Asked about these reports, Mr Mann told Channel 4: "Well, obviously I am hoping for clemency."

The trial continues today, with a verdict expected on Thursday.

The main players

MARK THATCHER Margaret Thatcher's only son became ensnared in the Wonga Coup saga when he was accused of bankrolling the failed endeavour. In 2005, in a South African court case, he denied knowingly being involved in a coup attempt but admitted making investments without properly overseeing their purpose. He was fined £265,000.

NICK DU TOIT The South African former special forces officer is now in Malabo's infamous Black Beach prison, having been convicted in 2004 for terrorism and crimes against the head of state and sentenced to 34 years. He was detained immediately after the failed coup with a group believed to be the mercenary vanguard.

ELY CALIL The reclusive Lebanese millionaire, who made his fortune trading in Nigerian oil, is accused of organising the plot from his home in west London – a charge he denies. This week Equatorial Guinea's President stepped up security around Mr Mann, saying he suspected Mr Calil of plotting to silence the defendant on the stand.

SEVERO MOTO Equatorial Guinea's opposition leader set up a "government in exile" in Madrid in 2003, claiming President Obiang was squandering oil revenues. After the alleged coup, he would have replaced the President and in return, would have dished out lucrative oil contracts. He was found guilty in absentia at the same trial as Nick du Toit.

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