By Emil Danielyan
A group of alleged mercenaries, among them six Armenian commercial pilots, went on trial in Equatorial Guinea Monday on charges of plotting to overthrow the longtime ruler of the central African nation, Teodoro Obiang Nguema.
The defendants reportedly appeared hand-cuffed and in leg-irons before a court in the country’s capital Malabo for the start of proceedings monitored by Armenian and other foreign diplomats and human rights activists.
The Armenians were expected to plead not guilty to the accusations ranging from coup d’etat to terrorism. Armenian diplomats who visited them earlier this year say they strongly deny any involvement in the alleged conspiracy to topple Obiang who has been in power since 1979. Their claims of innocence are fully backed by official Yerevan.
“Accusations leveled against our pilots so far are nonsensical and absurd in a certain sense,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamlet Gasparian reiterated on Monday. “They are all groundless.”
The pilots working for a private Armenian carrier were arrested along with nine other foreigners after their Antonov-12 plane, reportedly chartered by a German firm, landed in Malabo in March. The government of the former Spanish colony maintains that they were all an advance party of a larger group of “mercenaries” arrested in Zimbabwe earlier.
One of the detainees, German Eugen Nershz, died on March 17 of what the Equato-Guinean
authorities described as cerebral malaria. But according to Amnesty International, Nershz “died... apparently as a result of torture.” AFP reported that family members of some of the detainees have also alleged torture.
In Gasparian’s words, the health condition of the Armenian pilots led by Captain Ashot Karapetian is “normal” and they are hoping for a quick return to their homeland. “Information which we have at the moment gives us reason to expect a positive solution soon,” the official told RFE/RL. “All the documents show that they were simply the pilots of a commercial plane that was making flights into that country.”
Gasparian added that the trial is followed by Armenian diplomats, including the Cairo-based Ambassador Sergey Manaserian, who arrived in Equatorial Guinea a week ago. Manaserian and other officials already visited Malabo in May and were allowed to meet with the detained Armenians. The envoy also passed on to Obiang letters from President Robert Kocharian and Catholicos Garegin II calling for their release.
Obiang has been quoted as promising in a newspaper interview that his regime, seen by the United States as one of the most repressive in the world, will not seek the death penalty for the defendants. The latter also include eight South Africans and four Equato-Guineans, among them the oil-rich country’s former economic planning minister.
(RFE/RL archive: Teodoro Obiang Nguema.)