The main suspect in a controversial coup trial in Equatorial Guinea has again insisted that six Armenian pilots arrested with him last March had no connection with the alleged conspiracy to topple the president of the oil-rich West African nation.
Reports from the Equato-Guinean capital Malabo said Nick du Toit, a former officer of South Africa’s apartheid-era security forces, told a local court late on Tuesday that the Armenian and 12 other defendants knew nothing of any plot. Du Toit testified after court hearings on the case resumed following a more than two-month suspension.
His testimony is bound to be used by the Armenian government as an additional argument in its case for the release of its citizens. However, it appears to be have been ignored by the government of the former Spanish colony, with the top trial prosecutor, Jose Olo Obono, calling for a death penalty for du Toit and jail terms ranging between 102 to 16 years for other defendants.
The six Armenians are the aircrew of an Antonov-12 cargo plane that was hired by a German airfreight company, Central Asian Logistics (CAL), to carry out commercial flights to and from Equatorial Guinea earlier this year. The aircraft belonged to Tiga Air, a Yerevan-based private firm.
The Equato-Guinean authorities, routinely accused by the United States and international organizations of grave human rights abuses, claim that the pilots aided an advance party of South African “mercenaries” that were due to oust President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, in power since 1979. They were allegedly preparing for the arrival of the main mercenary force -- a group of about 70 other South Africans arrested in Zimbabwe earlier in March.
The Armenian aircrew, strongly backed by the government in Yerevan, has denied the charges. Tiga Air and CAL also insist on its innocence, saying that they have never dealt with du Toit. “The Armenian pilots are 200 percent innocent,” Thomas Rinnerd, chairman of the Frankfurt-based cargo carrier, told RFE/RL on September 27.
According to the Associated Press, du Toit retracted his earlier confession of his role in the alleged coup, saying that it was coerced. “It was Zimbabwean police who interrogated me, and who threatened to kill me if I did not maintain the account of attempted coup d'etat,” he said.
The news agency reported that some of his co-defendants showed the court what they said are scars of torture when the trial opened in August. It did not specify whether the Armenians were among those alleging mistreatment. All of the defendants reportedly appeared in the court in leg-irons and manacles.
The trial, attended by Armenian diplomats, adjourned after the scandalous arrest in late August of the Capetown-based son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on suspicion of bankrolling the conspiracy. The prosecutors said they need time to hear evidence from him.
“Eight new names have been added to the list of accused, including Britain's Mark Thatcher who will be tried in absentia,” Agence France Presse quoted a Guinean lawyer as saying on Tuesday.
(RFE/RL archive: Antonov-12.)