Facing the death penalty, an accused Equatorial Guinea coup ringleader sought Tuesday to clear his imprisoned co-defendants in the alleged plot to overthrow this oil-flush African regime.

South African arms dealer Nick du Toit (search) is accused of leading an advance team in an international coup plot here, foiled in March.

Equatorial Guinea (search) announced as trials opened Monday that it would seek du Toit's execution, contrary to earlier promises that no death penalties would be pursued in the case.

Eighteen European and African co-defendants here face prison sentences of up to 86 years.

Du Toit told the court Tuesday that those men were never told what they were being recruited for.

"They are innocent according to me," du Toit said in court.

"The innocent people should be set free," said du Toit, in handcuffs with leg chains clasped above his bony, flip flop-shod feet. "They're innocent."

Seventy other accused mercenaries are on trial separately in Zimbabwe, where they were arrested March 6 as they allegedly readied to board a leased aircraft to launch the coup in Equatorial Guinea.

Du Toit's Tuesday comments on innocence referred only to the Malabo defendants.

A 90th defendant, a German, died in prison in Equatorial Guinea after what Amnesty International (search) said was suspected torture.

Equatorial Guinea, pumping 350,000 barrels of oil daily, has shot to being Africa's No. 3 oil producer since offshore development began here in the mid-1990s.

Oil has made the nation of a half million citizens the fastest-growing economy in the world, with annual growth rates of up to 60 percent.

Global Witness (search) said 25-year ruler Teodoro Obiang (search), accused by the U.S. State Department of routine torture and other rights abuses, has siphoned off the majority of Equatorial Guinea's hundreds of millions of dollars in oil profits.

Equatorial Guinea has accused British and South African oil broker Eli Calil and other foreign financiers of funding the attempt. Obiang has also accused Mark Thatcher, son of former British Prime Minister, but Thatcher's name has not come up in court.

Lawyers for both men say they're innocent.

Du Toit says it was foreign financiers who plotted the coup in Equatorial Guinea, conspiring to put a presumably more-malleable opposition figure, exiled Severo Moto (search), in his place.

"The people behind this were financial people and they wanted to institute Moto as the next government," Du Toit said Tuesday.

Verdicts are expected Saturday.