Trial of suspected mercenaries postponed

The trial in Zimbabwe of 70 suspected mercenaries accused of plotting a coup in Equatorial Guinea has been postponed to Wednesday.

Lawrence Phiri, the state prosecutor, said the defence lawyers had asked for a postponement in the trial, being held in a makeshift court in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in the capital, Harare. There were no objections.

The men were detained after arriving at Harare International Airport on 7 March from South Africa, and charged with conspiring to carry out a coup in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea with weapons bought in Zimbabwe. They were also charged with violating Zimbabwe's immigration, firearms and security laws.

Lawyers for the men are seeking to have the trial moved to South Africa, as most of the suspects carry South African passports. They are concerned that if the trial proceeds in Zimbabwe, they could face extradition to Equatorial Guinea, a tiny West African country ranked by human rights groups as one of the world's most repressive.

Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea have been working out the details of an extradition treaty between the two countries. If the men are tried in Equatorial Guinea, they could face execution, while the death penalty is not on South Africa's statute books.

The hearing had been delayed to allow relatives to appeal to South Africa's highest court to have the men extradited back home to face trial. A judgement is still awaited in that case.

The prosecution has alleged that Equatorial Guinea's Spanish-based opposition leader, Severo Moto, hired the men, many of whom were former members of elite South African military units, to overthrow President Theodoro Obiang Nguema. The government of Equatorial Guinea has detained 15 men at Malabo on the island of Bioko, claiming they were part of an advance team preparing for the coup.

The suspected mercenaries held in Zimbabwe have denied plotting to overthrow Obiang, saying they were en route to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to take up security jobs at mining operations.