- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 25, 2004

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — The son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, an ex-race car driver whose business career has been dogged by questionable arms deals and shady ventures, was charged yesterday with helping finance a foiled coup plot in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea.

Mr. Thatcher, 51, was arrested at his Cape Town home and taken before Wynberg Magistrate’s Court to be charged with violating the country’s Foreign Military Assistance Act.

Magistrate Awie Kotze placed Mr. Thatcher under house arrest and gave him until Sept. 8 to post bail of $300,000.

Mr. Thatcher, who nervously tapped a pen in his palm during the proceeding, smiled and said, “Thank you,” before he was led away to be driven home. He was not asked to enter a plea.

“We have evidence, credible evidence, and information that he was involved in the attempted coup,” said Sipho Ngwema, a South African police spokesman. “We refuse that South Africa be a springboard for coups in Africa and elsewhere.”

Authorities in several African nations announced in March they had foiled an attempt to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, who is widely accused of torture and other abuses while ruling a nation that has become the continent’s third-biggest oil producer.

Outside court, Mr. Thatcher’s lawyers said he was arrested on suspicion of providing financing for a helicopter linked to the coup plot.

“Mr. Thatcher is not guilty of any allegations,” attorney Alan Bruce-Brand told reporters. “He has nothing to hide and is already cooperating with authorities.”

There was no immediate reaction from Mr. Thatcher’s mother, who was thought to be in the United States.

Police raided Mr. Thatcher’s home in the upscale suburb of Constantia shortly after 7 a.m. and investigators searched his records and computers.

Hours later, he was driven away in a police vehicle. But his court appearance was delayed when he was robbed of his shoes, jacket and cell phone in a crowded holding cell, according to a court official who witnessed the attack. Police recovered the items.

Equatorial Guinea put 19 persons on trial Monday in the purported plot. One other defendant died in custody under suspicious circumstances. Seventy suspected mercenaries are on trial separately in Zimbabwe.

Equatorial Guinea’s justice minister, Ruben Mangue, sidestepped questions about seeking Mr. Thatcher’s extradition. “Let’s first give an opportunity to the South African authorities and the South African legal system to handle the situation,” he told BBC radio.

The reported ringleader of the plot, former British special forces soldier Simon Mann, was among those arrested March 7 in Zimbabwe, where authorities said they stopped a planeload of mercenaries going to Equatorial Guinea. The men maintain they were headed to security jobs at a mining operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

At the trial in Equatorial Guinea, one of the defendants testified yesterday that Mr. Thatcher met with Mr. Mann in July 2003. Nick du Toit, a South African arms dealer, said Mr. Thatcher expressed an interest in buying military helicopters for a mining enterprise in Sudan, but described the meeting as a “normal business deal” unrelated to the coup plot.

Mr. Thatcher studied accounting but then pursued a career in motor racing. In January 1982, he was lost for six days during an auto rally across the Sahara Desert, causing his mother to weep in public for the first time.

He started his own company and moved to Texas in April 1984 after a lengthy controversy over reports that he represented a British construction firm that won a $600 million contract in Oman while Mrs. Thatcher was there on a trade-boosting trip in 1981.

Mr. Thatcher also was scrutinized by Britain’s Parliament in 1994 over news reports that he was involved in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Iraq while his mother was prime minister. In one case, the Sunday Times reported that Mr. Thatcher made $15 million in commissions on a $25 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, but it said there was nothing illegal about the deal.

Mr. Thatcher moved to South Africa two years ago after business troubles in the United States.

While living in Dallas, he settled a civil racketeering lawsuit for an undisclosed sum. He also faced charges from the Internal Revenue Service over his role with a Dallas-based home security company that went bankrupt.

Mr. Thatcher and his twin sister, Carol, are the only children of Mrs. Thatcher and the late Denis Thatcher.

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