By Emil Danielyan
The six Armenian pilots languishing in prison in Equatorial Guinea have nothing to do with a reported international conspiracy to overthrow the longtime ruler of the oil-rich central African nation, the German company that leased their cargo plane said on Monday.
Thomas Rinnerd, chairman of the Central Asian Logistics (CAL) airfreight firm, lent his full support to the protestations of innocence voiced by Captain Ashot Karapetian and the members of his aircrew that went on trial a month ago. They were charged with complicity in an apparently botched plot against President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, in power since 1979.
“The Armenian pilots are 200 percent innocent. So is our company,” Rinnerd told RFE/RL from his office near Frankfurt. “We are victims of the paranoia of this president.”
The Armenians operated an Antonov-12 aircraft belonging to Tiga Air, a Yerevan-based small company contracted by CAL. According to the CAL boss, they were supposed to deliver spare parts and other supplies to Equatorial Guinea’s oil industry dominated by U.S. multinationals. The German firm in turn had a contract with the country’s PANAC airline, Rinnerd added.
“We are a company that has no interest in, no connections with and no idea about what the Equato-Guinean authorities are talking about. We have never been involved in anything like that,” he said.
The arrests of the Antonov aicrew as well as eight South Africans and a German national were announced by Obiang’s regime on March 9. It described them as an advance party of “mercenaries” that was allegedly preparing for the arrival of the main mercenary force -- a group of about 70 other South Africans arrested in Zimbabwe earlier in March.
They were led by Simon Mann, a former British special forces officer and, according to British press reports, the main mastermind of the plot financed by several businessmen, including the son of Britain’s former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. A Zimbabwean court sentenced Mann to 10 years in prison earlier this month for attempting to buy weapons for the coup.
Mann is said to be a close friend and business partner of one of the eight South Africans standing trial in Guinea’s island capital Malabo, Nick du Toit. An apartheid-era soldier who used to run a mercenary firm, du Toit has pleaded guilty to the coup charges but has not explicitly implicated the Armenian pilots in the plot.
This fact is presented by the Armenian government as offering further proof of their innocence. Interviewed by RFE/RL last week, the Tiga Air director, Boris Avagian, dismissed the charges leveled against his employees as “groundless and nonsensical.” Both Avagian and CAL’s Rinnerd deny having ever dealt with du Toit.
Rinnerd endorsed reports that his company’s representative to Malabo, Gerhard Merz, died in prison several days after being arrested together with the Armenians not of cerebral malaria, as is claimed by the Equato-Guinean government, but of torture. “Mr. Merz’s body underwent an autopsy in Germany and the German authorities now believe that he was tortured to death,” he said.
Armenian diplomats who visited the aircrew in Malabo’s notorious Black Beach prison say they heard no ill-treatment complaints from the detainees. They have also hinted at assurances given to them by Equato-Guinean officials about a favorable outcome of the trial. But as recently as on August 27 the country’s prosecutor-general insisted that the Armenians defended by a local attorney are guilty.
The court hearings adjourned shortly afterwards and are expected to resume next week. In Rinnerd’s words, the German company which boasts clients like the German military and the Siemens engineering giant has tried to help the pilots.
“What we have tried to do is to get in contact with our crew and to hire a lawyer who would take care of them,” he said. “But the Equato-Guinean authorities told us very strictly, ‘You are not Armenian, you are not an Armenian embassy to be involved in this’.”
Asked whether he is ready to travel to the former Spanish colony and testify at the trial, Rinnerd replied, “I will not go to Malabo until things are cleared up. Who can guarantee that this paranoid guy called a president won’t throw me in jail?”