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By Emil Danielyan
Six Armenian pilots jailed in Equatorial Guinea on controversial coup charges risk starving to death along with more than 60 other prisoners unless “immediate action” is taken to alleviate their plight,” Amnesty International warned late Wednesday.

The respected human rights group said conditions at the west African country’s notorious Black Beach prison worsened drastically in the last six weeks, with food rations cut from a daily cup of rice to almost nothing. "Unless immediate action is taken, many of those detained at Black Beach prison will die," Kolawole Olaniyan, director of Amnesty's
Africa Program, was reported to say in a statement.

The government of Equatorial Guinea denied the claims. "Prisoners in Equatorial Guinea are not going hungry,” a senior official told Reuters.

The six Armenians are the aircrew of an Armenian transport plane that was hired by a German airfreight company over a year ago to ship cargo to Equatorial Guinea. They were arrested in March 2004 and sentenced to between 14 and 24 years’ imprisonment on November 26 on charges of involvement in a reported plot to topple the longtime president of the oil-rich former Spanish colony, Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

The pilots, backed by the Armenian government and their German employer, pleaded not guilty to the charges. Amnesty International condemned their trial as “grossly unfair.” The London-based watchdog said the Armenians and five South Africans jailed at Black Beach on the same charges remain shackled for 24 hours a day.

Obiang’s regime is regarded by the United States and international human rights groups as one of the most repressive in the world.

Amnesty’s allegations contrast with the account of Ara Abrahamian, a prominent Russian-Armenian businessman who was allowed to meet the Armenian prisoners on a recent visit to Equatorial Guinea. In an interview with RFE/RL on Monday, Abrahamian described their condition as “normal.” He said he gave each of them $500 and made sure that they receive “adequate” medical care.

Abrahamian was also upbeat about the pilots’ release from prison, saying that they could be set free soon. He said his representatives remain in the country’s capital Malabo and their negotiations with the local authorities are “difficult.”

The Armenian-born tycoon, who is reputed to have close ties with the Russian government, had an audience with Obiang during the trip. Obiang, by contrast, apparently refused to meet Armenia’s Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian when he visited Equatorial Guinea in February.

Oskanian was received by other Equato-Guinean officials and admitted afterward that he secured no explicit pledges to liberate the pilots. He expressed hope on Wednesday that Abrahamian’s efforts will end in success.
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