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INSIGHT

Mark Thatcher Coup Plea Bargain

Aired January 13, 2005 - 23:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JONATHAN MANN, CNN HOST (voice-over): A stormy night. Sir Mark Thatcher strikes a deal in South Africa to escape a prison term. The Iron Lady son confesses, but denies he was ever plotting a coup.

SIR MARK THATCHER: Everybody is asking about the terms of the agreement, and the only thing I can say is that there is no price too high for me to pay to be reunited with my family and I'm sure all of you who are husbands and fathers would agree with that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MANN: Hello and welcome.

The whole story reads like a cheap newsstand thriller, and we still probably really don't know exactly what happened, but it involves shady investors, mercenaries and an out-of-the-way African country awash in oil, a country small enough for a few men to think they could assemble a team and take it over. It didn't work.

Most of the coup plotters are in jail and Sir Mark Thatcher narrowly avoided joining them. Thatcher confessed to a role in the coup, though he says he didn't understand it or intend it at the time.

On our program today, a cloud over the sun.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): The story began with the news last March that Zimbabwe seized a cargo plane with military equipment and more than 60 suspected mercenaries aboard.

The next day, 15 more suspected mercenaries were arrested in Equatorial Guinea. Both countries charged the suspects with conspiring to topple Equatorial Guinea's president. Sir Mark was arrested in August in South Africa, accused of helping to finance the attempt.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

Victoria McDonald now on the deal that wraps up a few of the loose ends.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VICTORIA MCDONALD, ITV CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the end, Mark Thatcher arrived at the Cape Town High Court 15 minutes late, but given the speed with which the whole process had moved, it hardly mattered.

Once inside court, the prosecutor even thanked the judge for acting so swiftly. He said it was important for the administration of justice because Sir Mark was going to assist the prosecution.

(on camera): Sir Mark sat through most of the hearing fiddling with his worry beads. He stood only once, briefly, to confirm that he had entered into the plea bargain of his own free will.

Then barely five minutes later, the whole thing was over.

(voice-over): A 3 million rand fine, that's about 300,000 pounds, and a four-year suspended sentence. He was also given back his passport, which meant he was now free to leave the country.

THATCHER: Everybody is asking about the terms of the agreement, and the only thing I can say is that there is no price too high for me to pay to be reunited with my family and I'm sure all of you who are husbands and fathers would agree with that.

MCDONALD: But he does leave court a convicted criminal who was in the end found guilty of attempted financing of a coup in Equatorial Guinea.

In fact, he had given $275,000 American towards the charter of the helicopter. He said he thought it was for commercial purposes and had only later begun to suspect it was to be used by mercenaries. His defense: he was unwitting.

His mother, Baroness Thatcher, is thought to have paid his 200,000 pound bail when he was first arrested last August. Today she was back in London after a holiday in South Africa, making a very public appearance although she declined to comment.

It was a high-profile prosecution, a minor coup in itself for the Scorpions, South Africa's elite crime squad, yet questions were being asked if Sir Mark had got off too lightly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The plea bargain -- do you think it's a just way to respect justice?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The fair and just (UNINTELLIGIBLE). At the end of the day, our interests is the interest of justice, and justice has been served.

MCDONALD: The assistance Sir Mark has given is thought to be naming names, and more perhaps on the role of Simon Mann (ph), the alleged leader of the coup, locked up in Harare, although his sentence has been reduced by three years. Or Greg Wales (ph), who is wanted by the government of Equatorial Guinea along with David Tremaine (ph), both alleged to have been involved in the coup, and Eli Khalil (ph), a Lebanese businessman accused by Equatorial Guinea of being the main financier.

There is disquiet too among the ranks of the ruling ANC, who had hoped its legislation to stamp down on mercenaries would be showcased by a Thatcher trial. Indeed, we've learned the legislation is under review and may be tightened.

But the architect of the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act, under which Sir Mark was charged, said he was happy with today's outcome.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The important thing is he's been found guilty. He's been sentenced. Now, that's a criminal charge. I think it's the correct approach to take. Not because of his name or his stature, but because I think that on the basis of his own evidence, which the state has agreed there was an element here of stupidity or inadvertedness (ph).

MCDONALD: For the past five months, this 2 million pound mansion in an up-market Cape Town suburb has been Mark Thatcher's gilded cage, but this evening he left the house for the airport, his fine paid, his passport returned and his ticket out of South Africa.

Victoria McDonald, Channel 4 News, Cape Town.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MANN: Joining us now on the line from Cape Town is journalist Karyn Maughan of the "Cape Argus" newspaper, who's been following the case from the very start and who spoke with Mark Thatcher earlier in the day.

What did he tell you? How did he seem?

KARYN MAUGHAN, "CAPE ARGUS": I think on his part there's just a tremendous sense of relief. I think we must understand that at this point we had confirmation from the prosecuting authorities that the investigation against Sir Mark would only be completed in November this year, which would probably mean that he would go on trial sometime in 2007.

So as your report noted, his home has been quite a gilded cage for him, and he would probably have been in Cape Town for, conservatively speaking, another two years, without seeing his family. So I think for him there was just a tremendous sense of relief that it was now over.

MANN: He insisted from the outset that he was innocent. In the end, he confessed to actually committing a crime. Did he fear he was going to be punished? Is that why? Or is he simply, as you suggest, impatient with the wait?

MAUGHAN: Wel, it's a difficult question to answer. I think the plea agreements, he very much emphasized that it was a plea under the principle of dolus eventualus. In other words, he was saying he acted recklessly, but with not really the full knowledge of what he was doing or that it would result in the financing of the coup.

And I think very much on his part there's just a sense that the whole thing -- gladness that the whole thing is over.

Sir Mark is very -- he's been under the media spotlight since the age of 12, and he's obviously very practiced in dealing with the media. And I think in terms of the plea agreement with the Scorpions, there's always been very much emphasis on the fact that he wouldn't disclose his feelings about the plea agreement itself. He has been very measured in how he chooses to comment on that.

MANN: Karyn Maughan, at the "Cape Argus," thanks so much for this.

We take a break. When we come back, more on why the plea was made now.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MANN: Mark Thatcher inherited three crucial things from his parents: a fortune, a baronessey (ph) and, of course, a name that can open doors and close deals around the world.

Welcome back.

Sir Mark obviously had the right connections, but not always the right skills. He didn't go to university. He failed his accountancy exams, it is said, three times, and he was involved in a series of ventures, including a brief and unsuccessful career in racing.

A short time ago, we got in touch with David Leigh of the "Guardian," who has written extensively about Sir Mark, to talk about where the plea agreement leaves him now.

DAVID LEIGH, "GUARDIAN": Well, tonight it left him on a plane to London and ultimately to the United States, he hopes, with a criminal conviction behind him, with his reputation severely damaged and his business prospects are very, very questionable indeed.

MANN: Let me ask you about the way the court reached this agreement with Thatcher and his attorneys. He gave them a particular account of his role in the coup attempt. Does it add up?

LEIGH: Well, he's been forced to admit in the plea bargain a degree of guilty. He appears to have admitted that he knew this helicopter he was financing was going to be used for the coup and his position seems to be, to get the plea bargain, that he suspected it but didn't do anything about it. So he was kind of reckless. I mean, that's a virtual admission of complicity in the coup plot itself.

MANN: Does it fit the facts that we have, or at least the evidence and the testimony that we have access to from other sources?

LEIGH: Oh, no. The plea bargain looks very artificial because the evidence that's arrived so far puts hi right up to his ears in the plot.

First of all, there is a star witness, the pilot, Kraus Stile (ph), who says that he mean Mark on a number of occasions with the other conspirators, and that they all knew perfectly well a coup was in the air.

Secondly, there are telephone records which have emerged which show Mark in contact with the chief alleged conspirators, both in South Africa and in London, at an absolutely crucial moment, when the plot was getting underway. And I think what the evidence shows is that that Christmas 2003 by the poolside at Mark's luxury house in Cape Town, all the conspirators were gathered and they were all probably talking to each other about it, according to the evidence.

MANN: Now, the broadest lines are clear. They hoped to topple a government, but what specifically did Mark Thatcher hope to get out of it? Or what might he have gotten out of it if, as he denies, he was part of it.

LEIGH: There was a group of investors in this coup, and like all investors, what they hope to do is make a great deal of money out of their investment.

Simon Mann (ph) appears to have been promised at least $10 million for his part in organizing the military side of the coup and all of the investors, from the contracts that have surfaced, expected to get a very, very big return on their money. Plus, there were very lucrative oil concessions going in Equatorial Guinea, which has a strategic quantity of oil, which is in great demand in the United States.

MANN: No one is suggesting that Margaret Thatcher had any part in any of this, but there does seem to be a very close relationship between them, and I'm wondering if she was part of his decision to accept the plea.

LEIGH: Well, I'm sure that the time she spent this Christmas with Mark, they were discussing in probably a very anguished way what was to be done, and the normal pattern of Mark and his mother is that Mark does something really, really stupid and his mother then attempts to bail him out of it.

So I would expect that she advised him that this damage limitation was the best course of action. And, of course, it stopped there be a long, sensational, hideously embarrassing trial for Mrs. Thatcher herself.

MANN: Now, you say there is a pattern. Can you give us any other obvious example?

LEIGH: Well, the first time I encountered Mark Thatcher was more than 20 years ago, when he persuaded his mother to go to the Middle East and lobby for a contract for a construction company in Oman, when Mark Thatcher himself was confidentially on their payroll and was going to get a commission out of it.

That upset British diplomats so much that the story leaked. There was a huge row. Mrs. Thatcher had to defend him in the House of Commons. And in the end, I think on the advice of her and her then-press secretary, Mark decided to leave the country, and he went to Dallas, Texas.

MANN: He is said to have agreed to cooperate with further investigations. How much more is there to learn and clear up about the coup attempt?

LEIGH: Well, there were a number of people in South Africa who are implicated in the coup. The chief one, Simon Mann (ph), who was living in Cape Town, next door to Mark, is in jail in Zimbabwe. So I don't think the South Africans are very bothered about him. He's got his punishment.

There are others at large in London, the alleged chief financiers of the thing, who I don't think, again, the South Africans can get their hands on. So I'm not too sure what it is that he can cooperate about. I suspect that what is going to happen is that is information Mark provides about the intimate details of the coup may find its way into the hands of the lawyers for Equatorial Guinea, who -- it was the Guinea regime which was going to be overthrown, of course. And they are very anxious to pursue all around the world everyone who had anything to do with it, and in particular they want to pursue the man who hoped to become president, Sedara Moto (ph), who is living in exile in Spain.

MANN: One last quick question. What happened to all of the other men who were taken off of that plane?

LEIGH: They're in jail. They're in jail in Zimbabwe. And there was another group of men who went as an advance party to Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, and they're in jail in the notorious Black Beach Prison in Malabo. And all of those people are having a very uncomfortable time. Some of them, and their families, are going to be quite angry with Mark Thatcher, because he's walked. He's got away with it. They're rotting in jail.

MANN: David Leigh, of the "Guardian," thank you so much for this.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

One last quick word. Sir Mark did, of course, tell the court that he didn't know about the plot and didn't intend to be part of it, and under the settlement with the South African court, the court accepted that account of events.

We take a break. When we come back, how common is all of this? A closer look at soldiers of fortune and the affairs of state.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MANN: Simon Mann (ph) was convicted in Zimbabwe of trying to buy weapons for the coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea. His attorney said he was in fact preparing for legitimate security work, protecting diamond mines in the Congo. Two of his firms, Executive Outcomes and Sand Blind International, had a reputation for putting men at arms to work in war zones.

Welcome back.

Man's conviction made it a little easier for people to use the word that a lot of people had in mind for him and his chose occupation: mercenary. Does it make things harder for mercenaries, though?

Joining us now to talk about that is Al Venter. He is the author of "War Dog: Fighting Other Peoples' Wars; The Modern Mercenary in Combat."

Thanks so much for being with us.

I can remember when this story first emerged. It seemed very far- fetched. Let me ask you if it was easier to believe among people who know something about mercenary circles in Africa.

AL VENTER, AUTHOR: Yes, there's no question.

The thing is, that as David Leigh said earlier, these people sitting in jail at the moment -- but this whole story was broken in January. The coup organizers and David Mann (ph) and the rest of the crew, were arrested in March. We knew about this beforehand, as did British intelligence and Langley.

There is no question that the entire group of 70 in Harare and another 50 in Malabo were shopped from inside South Africa. South Africans knew this was coming. There are circumstances that are still going to come out, and we shall be dealing with in the sequel to that book, where South African military intelligence had infiltrated this group from the beginning because they were such incredible fighters and they have a track record to prove this.

MANN: You're saying this was an open secret for three months. That's incredible. That alone is fascinating, but let me ask you about Equatorial Guinea itself. Was it an obvious target? Have people tried this before? Are other groups going to try it?

VENTER: Yes. The place laid itself open in a sense that with immense supplies of oil. This is a new find, discovery, of a few years ago. And it is obviously something that is desirable by certain Western countries.

It's not well-guarded. It's a complete dictatorship. It's had a brutal record ever since it got freedom from Spain. And it's the sort of target which seemed to be very lucrative for the long-term. And the people to manipulate that would be the mercenary groups that have been fighting in Angola and Sierra Leone.

MANN: Is this a unique case? How many targets are there like that? How many men or organizations are tempted to take them?

VENTER: Well, let's put it this way. Sierra Leone had been at war for several years, a civil war against (UNINTELLIGIBLE). It took 70 South African mercenaries to turn that war around on its head and take the diamond fields.

In Angola, a war that had been going on for 20 years, Executive Outcomes, the group responsible, never had more than 500 people in their employ, and they brought an end to hostilities and they ended up destroying the Unitas guerillas, liberation group, call them what you like.

MANN: Tiny groups of men.

VENTER: Yes, indeed. Well, you have another example here which is quite remarkable. Neil Ellis (ph), somebody that I flew combat with for a month in Sierra Leone the other day, he had one helicopter gunship, a Russian hi-end MI-24 that leaked when it rained, and he turned the rebels away from the gates of Free Town twice with that one helicopter gunship.

Africa lends itself to this sort of economy, but you're not dealing with ordinary people. You're dealing with incredibly well-structured fighting forces, people with a huge amount of experience. They've been fighting against the Russians or the Cubans in Angola. These were good professional fighters. These are the true mercenaries.

MANN: Will this case have any impact on them?

VENTER: I think it's a terrible impact. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Prison, in Harare, where they're sitting now, is a five-star hotel compared to what's going on in Equatorial Guinea. I mean, that is really serious business. These people have had their nails torn out of their feet and fingertips.

MANN: You're talking about the men behind bars, but I'm thinking of men who've still got weapons and ambitions.

VENTER: Well, there's a couple of other wars that are still ongoing right now where you've got mercenaries. The Congo. They're back again. Both sides are hiring. The ongoing battles to the north of Angola. Congo Brassa is wide open for this sort of thing.

As long as there's huge supplies of money, which oil guarantees, you will have mercenaries.

Nigeria is wide open. It's had 50,000 dead in sectarian violence in the last two years. An incredible figure by the admission of the Nigerians themselves. That lends itself to some sort of an involvement by foreign forces and it's not only this kind of mercenary. You've got other mercenaries now, coming into Iraq, as an example, and Nigeria, right next door to Equatorial Guinea, is something that could happens shortly.

MANN: South Africa is trying to stop this. Other nations are trying to stop this. Is anyone succeeding?

VENTER: Well, South Africa has got two strange attitudes. It allows its Muslims to go and fight in countries in the Middle East and there are mercenary -- there has been mercenary activity with the blessing of the South African government, where you had mercenaries sent to the Sudan, like (UNINTELLIGIBLE), to teach Arab soldiers how to kill black civilians in the South. I've got the names of these people. The company was called LFD (ph).

You had more mercenaries with the blessing of the south African intelligence agencies, miliary intelligence, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Libya. Now we have a situation where one crowd is accepted and the other one is condemned.

MANN: Al Venter, author of "War Dog: Fighting Other Peoples' Wars," thanks so much for talking with us.

VENTER: I thank you.

MANN: That's INSIGHT for this day. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.

END

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