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MP pleads for jailed gun runner's release.

Byline: Tim Moynihan

A Tory MP has called on the Government to seek the release of former Army officer Simon Mann after he was jailed for seven years in Zimbabwe for conspiring to buy weapons of war.

The Eton and Sandhurst-educated former SAS captain was arrested in Harare in March as he allegedly prepared to launch a coup against the regime in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea.

The plot is also said to have involved Sir Mark Thatcher, a neighbour of Mann, who denies the claim.

Mann, a 51-year-old father of six, was sentenced yesterday and Norfolk North West MP Henry Bellingham, who has known him since their schooldays, said: 'I find it very difficult to believe the allegations made against him.

'I have known him for a long time. He has always been an adventurer - but a thoroughly professional one. This just isn't his style, which is one of huge professionalism and making sure he is acting within the law.

'I find it extraordinary that anyone with his background and experience would go into somewhere like Zimbabwe and buy weapons there. That's asking for everything to go badly wrong. I also say any sentence from a court in Zimbabwe, where the whole legal system has been discredited, is something the British Government must take a close interest in.'

Mr Bellingham said: 'The Government should seek his return to the UK for the matters to be investigated here.

'Here is a British citizen who had a distinguished Army career, and the Government should be trying to help him.'

Mann admitted trying to order assault rifles, grenades, anti-tank rocket launchers and other weapons from Zimbabwe Defence Industries.

He claimed the weapons were to protect a mining operation in war-torn eastern Congo.

At a court hearing last month, Mann was acquitted of an additional charge of taking possession of the weapons. Mann served in the Scots Guards then the SAS, and has a home on the banks of the Beaulieu river in Hampshire.

Earlier this week Sir Mark, son of former Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher, was subpoenaed to appear before a magistrate to answer questions relating to the alleged coup. He is free on bail in Cape Town, South Africa.

Equatorial Guinea wants to question a number of other Britons over allegations that they financed a plot to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang, who has ruled Africa's third-largest oil producer for the past 25 years.

Mann and his co-accused, most of whom were arrested when their ageing Boeing 727 landed at Harare International Airport on March 7, deny they were preparing to launch a coup.

The two pilots were jailed for 16 months yesterday.

The 65 men who were on the plane, convicted of immigration offences, were given 12-month sentences.

The reliability of the Zimbabwe legal system was also criticised by Stephen Jakobi, director of Fair Trials Abroad.

He said: 'There is a very real problem in countries where nobody gets a fair trial anyway, because they do not observe international standards, and I am afraid we are dealing with one of those countries here.

'I've got a lot of sympathy for those who have an official duty to protect, like the Foreign Office.'

A Foreign Office spokesman said: 'Although Simon Mann holds British citizenship, he entered Zimbabwe on his South African passport.

'At Simon Mann's request, South Africans are providing consular assistance. However, consular staff in London are in contact with the family, and we are also in close contact with the South African embassy in Harare, and with Mr Mann's lawyers.

'At his request, and with the approval of the Zimbabwean authorities, consular staff in Harare have visited him in prison, and will continue to do so. Our embassy staff have also regularly attended his court appearances.'

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Simon Mann handcuffed to another prisoner
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Sep 11, 2004
Words:632
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