By Emil Danielyan
Amnesty International, a respected human rights organization, on Tuesday condemned as “grossly unfair” the imprisonment in Equatorial Guinea of 20 people, among them six Armenians, charged with plotting to topple the west African country’s president.
Armenia’s government, meanwhile, continued to press the Equato-Guinean authorities to release its citizens sentenced to between 14 and 24 years at the end of a three-month trial on Friday. Most of the other defendants, including five South Africans, were also given lengthy jail terms.
“Neither the verdict nor the sentences were translated, and the defendants left court with no knowledge of their fate,” Amnesty International said in a statement.
“No evidence was presented in court to sustain the charges against the accused other than their statements, which the defendants said had been extracted under torture. However, defendants’ protestations to this effect were ignored by the bench,” the statement added.
The London-based watchdog, whose representatives monitored the trial, said all defendants have faced “cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment” by Equato-Guinean security officials since their arrest in the capital Malabo on March 8. “All defendants were held incommunicado, handcuffed and shackled 24 hours a day,” it said. “They did not receive an adequate diet, and only rarely received medical treatment for the many ailments that afflicted them in prison.”
The suspects were alleged to be an advance party of foreign, mainly South African, mercenaries detained in Zimbabwe the day before their arrest. All of them pleaded not guilty to the accusations.
The six Armenians were the aircrew of an Antonov-12 transport plane that arrived in the oil-rich former Spanish colony last January. Both Tiga Air and a German airfreight company that leased the aircraft insist that they were due to ship equipment to the local oil industry and knew nothing about a reported plot to oust Equatorial Guinea’s longtime President Teodoro Obiang Nguema.
The Armenian government also insists on the pilots’ innocence. Two Armenian Foreign Ministry officials attended the concluding session of the trial and were still in Malabo as of Tuesday evening. A Foreign Ministry statement said they were allowed to visit the jailed Armenians and passed on to the Equato-Guinean authorities official Yerevan’s request to review the their case.
The statement added that the local attorney of the Antonov-12 aircrew has still not received a copy of the trial verdict and is thus unable to lodge an appeal against it at the country’s Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, three other South Africans acquitted by the court on Friday have given harrowing accounts of torture and humiliation in Malabo’s notorious Black Beach prison. One of them, Mark Schmidt, stayed in the same house with the Armenians before the arrest.
The men told a South African newspaper that the prison inmates were kept with hands cuffed behind their backs. One of them, Ablo Augusto, said: “Some of the guys were crying, begging for them to loosen the cuffs. Every time you turned, even a little bit, the cuffs tightened more. They'd just say: "Too tight?" Then they'd tighten it some more.”
They confirmed reports that Gerhard Merz, the local representative of the German CAL firm that hired the Antonov-12, was tortured to death a week after the arrests. The official cause of Merz’s death was cerebral malaria.
According to the other freed South African, Americo Ribeiro, the Armenians were particularly shocked by the court ruling. “When I left them I was crying,” he said. “We were all crying.”