(AFP, RFE/RL) - The trial of 18 men charged with plotting to oust Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang Nguema went into a fourth day Thursday, with an Armenian pilot accused of being a hired gun for the coup bid giving evidence.
Samvel Darpinian, 41, told the court in Malabo that he does not know why he has been held in prison since March along with five other Armenian crew members and eight South Africans. Darpinian was the first of the arrested Armenians to take the stand. His testimony was presented by the government of Armenia as offering further proof of their innocence.
“The testimony once again showed that the Armenian pilots had nothing to do with any conspiracy,” Hamlet Gasparian, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Yerevan, told RFE/RL.
The 14 foreign suspects are on trial alongside four Equato-Guineans, all accused of complicity in a plot to topple Obiang, who has been in power in the tiny, oil-rich central African country since 1979. Obiang announced their arrests on March 9. The arrests came days before some 70 men were detained when their plane stopped off in Zimbabwe, allegedly en route to Equatorial Guinea for the coup.
The Equato-Guinean attorney general has called for the death penalty for the alleged ringleader of the group on trial, South African Nick du Toit, and prison sentences of between 26 and 86 years for the other accused.. Du Toit is so far the only one of the 18 defendants to admit any involvement in a coup plot. Five other South African defendants denied playing any part in it.
“All of the South Africans have denied that the Armenian pilots have taken part in anything illegal,” said Gasparian, reiterating Yerevan’s calls for their liberation.
However, Attorney General Jose Olo Obono on Wednesday rejected claims that some of the 18 alleged coup-plotters are innocent. "They were all involved in this (coup) bid. The charge sheet resumes the level of involvement of each one of them point by point," Olo Obono told AFP.
“My impression is that they simply want to change tactic and place all the blame on Nick du Toit,” he said.
The trial took a new twist Wednesday after the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was arrested in South Africa for allegedly bankrolling the putschists. Mark Thatcher, 51, a millionaire businessman, was arrested during a predawn raid at his home in the Cape Town suburb of Constantia for violating the Foreign Military Assistance Act banning mercenary activities.
A German citizen arrested together with the Armenians and the South Africans died in detention shortly afterward, officially of cerebral malaria. But human rights groups say he was tortured to death.
According to Gasparian, no member of the Armenian flight crew of an Antonov-12 cargo plane has claimed to have been ill-treated in conversations with Armenian diplomats that have visited them in jail.