JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – From special forces commander to soldier of fortune, Simon Mann's colorful career reads like a thriller.
Born to a world of wealth and privilege, the British mercenary made a fortune in some of Africa's bloodiest wars — and even enjoyed a stint in the movies.
Now Mann faces up to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced Friday in Harare, Zimbabwe, in a bizarre plot to overthrow a dictator in a tiny African backwater. The case has also ensnared Mark Thatcher (search), son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
For Mann, it has been a stunning downfall.
The alleged plot against Equatorial Guinea's president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema (search), a despot with a reputed penchant for cannibalism, appeared to carry the promise of vast riches in the form of access to the offshore oil of Africa's third-biggest oil producer.
Instead, Mann — suspected of masterminding the coup attempt — faces the prospect of prison in a country known for horrific human rights abuses.
Mann has shown up for court appearances bespectacled and bedraggled, dressed in prison-issue khaki shirt and shorts — a far cry from the debonaire adventurer described by acquaintances.
His lawyers say he has been denied adequate food and clothing, and some of Mann's 69 co-accused have allegedly been beaten at the maximum security Chikurubi prison, where he is likely to serve out his sentence for trying to buy arms from Zimbabwe's state arms manufacturer.
Mann, the son of former England cricket captain George Mann and heir to the Watley Ale (search) brewing fortune, graduated from Britain's elite Eton College (search) and Sandhurst (search) military academy.
The 51-year-old father of six went on to a distinguished military career which reportedly included service in Cyprus, Central America, Germany and Northern Ireland.
He left the military in the 1980s, returning only briefly to work with British commander Gen. Peter de la Billiere during the Gulf War.
From there, Mann drifted into security work, providing bodyguards to wealthy clients.
In the early 1990s, he helped set up two security consultancies that recruited among former South African military forces who found themselves out of work after apartheid ended in 1994.
One, Executive Outcomes (search), earned millions from the Angolan government by guarding oil installations against rebel attacks, while the other, Sandline (search), is believed to have participated in Sierra Leone's bloody civil war.
Mann also had a detour in the limelight, taking a small role as a British officer in the 2002 film "Bloody Sunday" about the conflict in Northern Ireland.
During this period, Mann took up residence in the plush Cape Town suburb of Constantia, where his neighbors included Mark Thatcher and Earl Spencer (search), brother of the late Princess Diana.
Last month, South African authorities arrested Thatcher and charged him with helping to finance the botched Equatorial Guinea plot, an accusation he denies.
One of Mann's former associates at Executive Outcomes, Nick du Toit (search), is now on trial for his life in the west African nation, where he has admitted plotting to overthrow Nguema, who seized power himself in a 1979 coup. He has testified that Mann was in charge of the operation.
Mann and the other accused, most of whom were arrested when their aging Boeing 727 landed at Harare International Airport on March 7, deny they were preparing a coup. They say they were headed to security jobs at a mining installation in eastern Congo.
After nearly six months in jail, Mann's associates were acquitted of all but minor immigration and aviation violations. Two have been released and the rest are expected to receive light sentences Friday.
But Mann admitted trying to buy assault rifles, grenades, anti-tank rocket launchers and other weapons from Zimbabwe Defense Industries (search) — an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison.