Zimbabwe releases foreign prisoners
By Stella Mapenzauswa ZIMBABWE officially released 62 foreigners today who were jailed for a year over an alleged coup plot in Equatorial Guinea, but they were kept in a prison complex pending deportation, their lawyer said.

The group, all with South African passports, were arrested in March 2004 after their plane was impounded during a stopover at Harare international airport. They were jailed on immigration and firearms charges.

"They have been discharged and they are awaiting for immigration to deport them to South Africa. They are packed and ready to go," Jonathan Samkange told reporters outside Harare's Chikurubi high security prison complex where the men remained even after their technical release.

Samkange said he was trying to arrange immigration formalities so the men could be transported to the border and deported.

The men could face an uncertain future once back in South Africa, which has strict laws against mercenary activity.

"We are investigating if they have contravened the South African Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act. But at the moment there is no need to arrest them and they are not going to be arrested at all on their return home," National Prosecution Authority spokesman Makhosini Nkosi said.

Mark Thatcher, the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, pleaded guilty in South Africa in January to a role in the plot under a deal with prosecutors to avoid jail under South Africa's anti-mercenary laws. The leader of the group arrested in Zimbabwe, Briton Simon Mann, was convicted of seeking to possess dangerous weapons and jailed for seven years. Two South African pilots also still have to complete their sentences in Zimbabwe.

Initially 69 men were arrested in Harare, but one subsequently died in prison and others were found not guilty or released on medical grounds after spending months behind bars.

The men, who said they were headed to Democratic Republic of Congo to provide mine security services, were convicted of contravening Zimbabwe's weapons and immigration charges in a trial which lasted some five months.

In March a court granted an order for their early release, but their hopes were dashed by Zimbabwe's Supreme Court which approved a government bid to block the move.

Mercenaries still stuck in Zimbabwe
Sunday 15 May, 2005 - author/source:Mail & Guardian (SA)

Musina - It is unclear whether the 62 alleged mercenaries jailed in Zimbabwe will return to South Africa on Friday, their lawyer, Alwyn Griebenow, said from Harare on Thursday. The men were supposed to have been released from Chikurubi maximum-security prison outside Harare when their sentences expired on Tuesday. They have served 12 months for violating Zimbabwe's immigration, aviation, firearms and security laws. The group was then due to be released early on Thursday, but this was delayed due to transport and security concerns by Zimbabwean immigration officials. "We offered to supply a bus to bring them back, but it has been turned down because they say they are a security risk," Griebenow said. The group will be brought to South Africa via the Beitbridge border post by transport organised by immigration officials. Wives and girlfriends of the men said on Thursday they will make their way to the border once the group has been released. "I'm waiting on tenterhooks. As soon as I know when they are coming back, I'm driving up to meet them," said Simon Witherspoon's girlfriend, Anne, from Pietermaritzburg.

Karen Harris, the fiancée of one of the men, from Johannesburg said: "I'm very excited and nervous. But I'm also a bit scared because the time is ticking on; I don't know if they'll be here today [Thursday]." Marge Pain, wife of Kenneth Pain (61), said she is not surprised that her husband is still in prison. "I don't even know why I get shocked sometimes. But it is really not surprising," she said. "This waiting is so soul destroying," she said in Musina near the Beitbridge border post. "I don't know what is going on. I don't know what they [Zimbabwean officials] are trying to prove." She was waiting for her husband's return with her mother, sister, daughter, cousin and eight-year-old grandson, Justin. "And here Justin sits - I even took him out of school again - thinking he is going to see his oupa [grandfather]. They are so close; this is terrible." She said she has organised a pass to meet her husband on Monday in case he is not released before the time.

Meanwhile, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) said the men will not be arrested on their return, but the Scorpions are probing whether they have contravened the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act. If so, they will face prosecution. "We will speak to them when appropriate ... They've been in jail for a year and want to see their families. Their families want to see them," NPA spokesperson Makhosini Nkosi said on Thursday. "We have contact with their lawyer and know where to find them. So why would we want to arrest them?" South African ambassador Jerry Ndou said the men will leave Harare after the completion of all their immigration procedures. Zimbabwe's chief immigration officer is personally handling the men's deportation. Their early release in March after a reduction of their sentences was thwarted by an appeal by Zimbabwean Attorney General Sobuza Gula-Ndebele. He argued that early releases only applied to Zimbabweans. Leave for the appeal was granted, but it has not been heard yet.

Two of the men due for release on Thursday - Francisco Marcus and Melane Moyodue - are ill with tuberculosis, believed to have been picked up in prison. Accusations of mistreatment of the prisoners have also surfaced, with Griebenow saying their living conditions were "horrible". Their prison food has been a spoon of cabbage and a spoon of porridge a day, they have slept on the floor, and sometimes weeks have gone by without running water, he said. The men were arrested at Harare International airport when they apparently landed to refuel and pick up military equipment. Zimbabwean authorities said they were on their way to join 15 other alleged mercenaries - including eight South Africans - arrested in Equatorial Guinea at about the same time. The men said the equipment found in their possession was to be used to guard mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The group in Equatorial Guinea was convicted and given long prison sentences for trying to overthrow the country's long-time dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

'Mercenaries' delay causes alarm
Sixty men linked to an alleged coup plot in Equatorial Guinea remain in custody in Zimbabwe, four days after their jail terms ended.

The men were to be deported to South Africa on Thursday, but remain in the custody of immigration officials.

"It looks like this is a cat and mouse game situation," lawyer Jonathan Samkange told the Associated Press.

Coup allegations against the men were not proven, but they were convicted of breaking Zimbabwe's immigration laws.

The men have not left the Harare jail where they served a one-year sentence. On release, they are expected to be taken by road to the Beit Bridge border crossing.

"My clients are all dressed up in their own clothes very cheerfully ready to leave but they are getting anxious," Mr Samkange said.

New charges

They will be reunited with their families before facing possible charges in South Africa, their South African lawyer, Alwyn Griebenow, said.

They are in good health apart from one with tuberculosis, he added.

The alleged ringleader of the plot, Briton Simon Mann, and the two pilots of the plane, remain in prison in Zimbabwe on longer sentences.

The men being released had been travelling on South African passports when they were arrested in March 2004 after their chartered plane touched down at Harare airport to pick up weapons.

Zimbabwean officials said they had been en-route to Equatorial Guinea to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in the oil-rich country.

The men said the weapons were to be used for guarding diamond mines in Democratic Republic of Congo.

In Equatorial Guinea, 14 other people have been found guilty of charges linked to the coup plot, including South African Nick du Toit who received 34 years.

Sir Mark Thatcher, the son of former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was given a suspended jail term in South Africa and fined after agreeing a plea bargain to help investigators.

Previous reports said that there were 62 prisoners due for release but latest reports refer to 60.

Under South African law, they could be charged with engaging in military activities abroad without official permission.

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