, MALABO, Nov 3 – Equatorial Guinea granted amnesty to ailing British mercenary Simon Mann and four others imprisoned for a 2004 failed coup plot in the oil-rich west African nation, national radio announced on Tuesday.
Mann, educated at Britain’s elite schools and a former Special Air Service officer, was expected to be released "imminently" from his jail cell in Equatorial Guinea after being sentenced last year to 34 years behind bars, British officials said.
"We understand this was a personal decision by the president of Equatorial Guinea on humanitarian grounds," a Foreign Office spokeswoman said in London.
Mann, 57, was operated on last year for a hernia and the state of his health was one of the reasons for the amnesty decision, national radio said in broadcasting the degree dated November 2.
The decree said Mann needed "regular medical treatment near his family" and also that he had shown "credible signs of repentance and the desire to be reinserted in society".
Mann was arrested in March 2004 along with 61 other suspected coup plotters when their plane landed in Zimbabwe. He also implicated Mark Thatcher, the son of Britain’s former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, in the plot to oust President Teodoro Obiang Nguema.
His South African co-conspirator in the plot, Nick Du Toit, was also granted amnesty along with three others convicted in the affair.
Mann, who attended Britain’s prestigious Eton school and Sandhurst military academy, was said to be the brains behind the coup attempt.
It was aimed at overthrowing Obiang Nguema, who has ruled the country with an iron hand since a 1979 coup that ousted his uncle, and bringing exiled opposition leader Severo Moto to power.
Mann and Du Toit had set up Executive Outcomes, which operated from Pretoria in South Africa and helped the Angolan government protect its oil installations from rebels during that country’s long civil war.
Mann, who lived in the posh Cape Town suburb of Constantia — also home to Earl Spencer, the brother of the late Princess Diana, and Mark Thatcher — allegedly used the ‘old boy’ network to finance his deals, media reports said.
Thatcher, who pleaded guilty in a South African court to financing the planned coup, was given a four-year suspended prison sentence.
The announcement of releasing the convicted mercenaries came as Equatorial Guinea opens its presidential election campaign on Thursday. The vote is set for November 29 and Obiang Nguema is seeking another mandate.
The former Spanish colony is Africa’s third biggest oil producer after Nigeria and Angola following the discovery of large offshore oil deposits in the early 1990s, but the benefits have yet to trickle down to the people.
Obiang Nguema in 1987 created the Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE), which dominates the political apparatus and leads a coalition of nine parties among the 13 that are legally recognised.
Since multiparty politics were introduced in 1991, the PDGE has easily won all elections.