CAPE TOWN, South Africa - Sir Mark Thatcher pleaded guilty Thursday to unwittingly
helping to finance an foiled coup plot in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea in exchange
for a fine and a suspended jail sentence.
Thatcher, the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, will
pay a $506,000 fine in a deal that lets him leave South Africa to rejoin his
family in the United States. If he does not pay the fine, he faces a five-year
prison sentence with a further four years suspended sentence, Judge Abe Motala
said in the Cape High Court.
Thatcher admits that he paid for a military helicopter used by mercenaries in
the alleged plot but maintains that he believed it was to be used as an air
ambulance for humanitarian purposes, a person close to the family said.
Thatcher and his lawyers did not address a large crowd of journalists gathered
outside the building as they arrived Thursday morning for the brief court appearance.
A poster reading "Save me mummy" hung from a window across the street.
A spokesman for Lady Thatcher's office in London said late Wednesday: "She
is very relieved that matters have now been settled and that the worry of these
last few months is now over."
Thatcher, who has lived in South Africa since 1995, was arrested at his suburban
Cape Town home on Aug. 25 and charged with violating this country's anti-mercenary
He also faces charges in Equatorial Guinea, where 19 other defendants are already
on trial in connection with an alleged plot last year to overthrow President
Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who has ruled Africa's third-largest oil producer for
the past 25 years. Officials there have said they will seek Thatcher's extradition
from South Africa.
Equatorial Guinea alleges Thatcher and other mainly British financiers worked
with the tiny country's opposition figures, scores of African mercenaries and
six Armenian pilots in a takeover attempt foiled in March. Thatcher maintains
he played no part in the alleged conspiracy.
The high court in South Africa ordered Thatcher to answer questions submitted
by Equatorial Guinea under oath in November, but that appearance was postponed
until Feb. 18 to give his lawyers a chance to appeal the ruling.
Thatcher's trial on charges of violating South Africa's Foreign Military Assistance
Act had been postponed until April 8 for further investigation before he pleading
guilty Thursday to a charge of attempted financing of a coup in West Africa.