On March 7th, 2004, 70 men, and the Boeing 727 they had just flown into Zimbabwe's Harare airport aboard for refueling, were seized by Zimbabwe police. There were no weapons on the aircraft, but there were sleeping bags and "military equipment." The men were thought to be mercenary commandos, on their way to do something illegal. Something was up, but no one was talking.
The latest rumor about the 70 alleged mercenaries arrested in Zimbabwe is that they were going to abduct former Liberian president Charles Taylor. Taylor has claimed asylum in Calabar, a port city in southeast Nigeria less than 360 kilometers from the Guinean capital, Malabo. The suspects' leader Simon Mann had hired two fishing trawlers in Equatorial Guinea and there was a rubber dinghy seized on the Boeing cargo plane the mercenaries were traveling on. The suspects' families insist that the vessels were to be used in a sea-borne assault on the Nigerian port.
In June 2003, the Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal indicted Taylor on 17 counts of crimes against humanity for his role in arming and training the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The decade-long rebellion left up to 200,000 dead and the courts chief investigator said that he would welcome anybody ("even a private company") who could deliver Taylor to stand trial.
After the US Congress authorized a $2 million bounty for Taylor, the private military company Northbridge Services Group (based in London) placed an advertisement on its website offering to "split the profits on the reward" with any partner interested in helping to fund and execute a snatch operation. Northbridge has been involved in West African conflicts, but what links they have with the arrested men is unknown.
One March 22, the 70 accused mercenaries were remanded in custody at a specially convened courtroom in Zimbabwe's top-security prison, all were charged under Zimbabwe's public order and security laws (as well as several immigration, firearms, and aviation offenses). Charges of conspiring to murder Equatorial Guinea's President Obiang and his bodyguards were dropped at the last minute, along with subversion and terrorism charges.
If convicted of violating Zimbabwe's immigration, firearms and security legislation, they could face life in prison. Their defense lawyer said his clients faced maximum fines of $200,000 each.
The Zimbabwean government has had a difficult time deciding what crimes they wanted to accuse the suspects of committing. While the Zimbabwean Minister of Home Affairs claimed that the men were planning to aid a Congo rebel group and had stopped in Harare to buy arms, Zimbabwe soon backtracked and echoed Equitorial Guineas coup claims.
Wallowing in paranoia after the arrests of 70 alleged 'mercenaries', the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) deployed heavily armed troops to seal off all domestic airports. Aviation sources revealed that soldiers are closely guarding airports at Victoria Falls, Hwange National Park, Buffalo Range in Chiredzi, Kariba and Bulawayo's Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo. A soldier from Chiredzi's Buffalo Range Airport pointed out that they were in the area where opposition MDC party President Morgan Tsvangirai was when he escaped the road blocks while coming from South Africa. Perhaps the Zimbabweans were fearing a 'rescue attempt'.
On March 21, The Zimbabwe Standard reported that soldiers may have seriously assaulted some of the suspected 70 mercenaries captured at Harare International Airport and even tortured them. They were taken to police stations all over Mashonaland, as part of government efforts to make them confess. Their lawyers have also complained that they were not allowed to see any of the 70 in private "to take full instructions" and because of the presence of Zimbabwean security and prison officers, it was impossible to ascertain whether they were ill treated.
Those suspects held in Equatorial Guinea are in the same boat. Amnesty International said that a German named Gerhard Eugen Nershz died in custody from what Equatorial Guineas aid was malaria, although witnesses who saw Nershz in the hours before his death saw visible signs of torture on his body. - Adam Geibel