- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2005

CAPE TOWN, South Africa - Mark Thatcher, 51, the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, could be barred from the United States, where he hopes to rejoin his American wife and children, after last week’s felony plea bargain in which he admitted paying for a helicopter to be used in an African coup.

Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the president of Equatorial Guinea, was the target of the coup attempt last year. The former Spanish colony, which gained independence in 1968, likely will seek Thatcher’s extradition from wherever he goes.

Thatcher’s criminal record could prevent him from obtaining anything beyond a visitor’s permit to the United States, the South African newspaper Rapport said.

His plans to rejoin his American wife, Diane, and children in Texas have been delayed while his attorneys negotiate with U.S. authorities for a new visa, the Dallas Morning News reported. His old visa has expired and his criminal conviction could count against him, it said.

The Dallas newspaper said Thatcher was waiting in Frankfurt, Germany, for word on the visa. An earlier report in the London Sunday Telegraph quoted a U.S. customs official as saying Thatcher would receive no special favors because of his family.

Margaret Thatcher, who was a close friend of President Reagan’s, paid her son’s bail and has been staying with him in Cape Town. She did not accompany him to the courthouse.

Thatcher’s wife, the daughter of a wealthy Texas auto dealer, has been conspicuously absent. She made one fleeting trip to Cape Town since flying to Dallas with their two children shortly after her husband’s arrest in August.

Across the street from the courthouse, a sarcastic poster hung from a building. It said: “Save me, mommy.”

Thatcher, a longtime wheeler-dealer who traded worldwide on his mother’s fame and influence, was ordered to pay a $506,000 fine and given a suspended four-year prison sentence.

One of South Africa’s top lawyers told The Washington Times that Thatcher’s avoidance of any jail time caused “deep unease” to South Africans and the country’s legal profession.

“The rich and famous benefit from this plea bargaining — an Americanism that we have had here for two years. That’s how people like Thatcher get away with their crimes,” said Norman Arendse, chairman of the General Council of the Bar of South Africa.

At his brief hearing Jan. 13 in a wood-paneled Cape Town courtroom, Thatcher swayed nervously and puffed his cheeks. He admitted violating the Foreign Military Assistance Act, enacted to end South Africa’s previous status as a launchpad for mercenaries either helping to overthrow African regimes or propping up dictatorships on the continent.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, current head of the African Union, has vowed to end hired military activities and their private soldiers, which flourished during white rule and the transition to democracy.

After the court hearing, Thatcher sought to downplay his admissions. He told a throng of reporters outside the courthouse: “I am willing to pay any price to be reunited with my family, and I am sure all of you who are husbands and fathers would agree with that.” Thatcher refused to answer questions before he was whisked home in a green BMW.

An American aircraft was sold to a South African company last year and filled with gun-toting mercenaries before setting off for Equatorial Guinea, a tiny dictatorship with vast oil reserves offshore, being pumped mainly by U.S. oil giants.

South African intelligence services tipped off the government of Zimbabwe as to the plane’s purpose, and police swooped in as arms were loaded aboard at a Zimbabwe airport.

Thatcher, a former racing driver and a licensed pilot, had twice test-flown an Apache III helicopter, but claimed that initially he thought it was to be used as an air ambulance. Observers say the same type of French-built helicopter was used only on attack missions during white-ruled South Africa’s long-running war in South West Africa, now Namibia.

In his plea bargain, Thatcher admitted he suspected the helicopter would be used in an African coup but had failed to tell the authorities and paid for its purchase.

“Sir Mark” — he inherited the knighthood when his father died — lived in a Cape Town mansion. The Thatchers have put their multimillion-dollar house and its spacious mountainside grounds up for sale and dismissed their servants, butlers and other employees.

The conservative national newspaper Rapport said in an editorial that Thatcher “ought not to be welcome in South Africa any more. His right of residence, and the privileges attendant on it, should be torn up.”

The Thatchers lived near the home of the coup leader, Simon Mann, a former British special forces commander who had led successful mercenary forays. He now languishes in a Zimbabwe jail.

In his courthouse statement, Thatcher blamed Mann for the coup attempt. Thatcher looked increasingly vulnerable after three South Africans, including the main pilot, offered to testify against him in exchange for reduced sentences.

Mann, the purported coup leader, this month had his seven-year prison sentence reduced by three years during an unusual Zimbabwean court hearing — possibly after a tell-all deal with South African authorities, who have warm relations with Zimbabwe.

The Washington Times has learned that South African investigators twice secretly visited Mann in jail, but it appears he refused to reveal who financed his plot against Equatorial Guinea in return for a reduced sentence, to be served in a much less harsh South African jail.

His British attorneys are seeking a deal with authorities in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital.

For an investment of about $270,000, those who reportedly financed the planned coup attempt — thought to include a former British Cabinet minister and a writer of thriller novels — stood to make about $16 million, according to documents in the possession of the South African prosecuting authorities.

The coup would have installed an opposition leader, Severo Moto, in exile in Portugal, as Equatorial Guinea’s leader after the mercenaries killed the president in a “Trojan Horse” operation — they were to lure him and his bodyguards to the airport with claims they had gifts aboard their plane.

Mr. Moto, the opposition leader, would have granted extensive contracts to those involved in the coup, according to the documents and claims by Equatorial Guinea’s attorney general.

British intelligence has acknowledged that it knew of the coup plot, but “due to a bureaucratic mix-up” the intelligence never reached top officials. It was not clear whether the United States knew of or approved the planned coup.

Thatcher still faces an effort by Equatorial Guinea to have him extradited from wherever he takes shelter.

Prosecutors told The Washington Times that to avoid this prospect, Thatcher would need to recall some specific details about the identities of the other coup financiers. A South African prosecutor said other “big names” may emerge.

However, other sources said the plea bargain was necessitated by loopholes in the anti-mercenary law. Government sources said the law is so badly drafted that it will be replaced soon with a more effective statute.

Thatcher has faced other legal difficulties.

In the United States, he settled a civil racketeering lawsuit for an undisclosed sum, and faced charges from the Internal Revenue Service stemming from his involvement with a home-security company that went bankrupt.

Reports that he was involved in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Iraq while his mother was prime minister led to angry demands in 1994 for an investigation by the British Parliament.

Lawmakers also had demanded that Mrs. Thatcher explain her son’s purported involvement in a British company’s successful bid for a $600 million contract with a university in Oman. The deal went ahead soon after she had made an official visit there as prime minster.

In British political circles, calls have come for her son to be stripped of the knighthood he inherited from his late father.

In Cape Town, Thatcher lived near the ninth Earl Spencer, brother of the late Princess Diana, and mixed with a rich set of expatriate Britons who behaved as though British colonial rule in Africa had not ended.

Servants have told investigators they were shouted at and forced to run when Thatcher snapped his fingers, but that his mother was always polite to them. Her son’s downfall and conviction are seen here as presaging the end of colonial meddling in African affairs.

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