HARARE, Zimbabwe – Former British special forces soldier Simon Mann (search), the alleged leader of a foiled coup plot in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, was sentenced Friday to seven years in prison for trying to buy weapons from Zimbabwe's state arms manufacturer.
Magistrate Mishrod Guvamombe handed down the sentences in a makeshift courthouse inside the Chikurubi maximum-security prison near Harare where Mann and other accused mercenaries have been detained since their March 7 arrest.
Most were taken into custody after their Boeing 727 landed at the Harare International Airport during what prosecutors say was a plot to stage a coup in oil-rich west African nation of Equatorial Guinea — a scandal that also has implicated Mark Thatcher (search), the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Mark Thatcher, a neighbor of Mann's in an upscale suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, is accused of helping to finance the alleged plot.
On Friday, Guvamombe made no reference to the alleged coup plot.
Two flight crew members were sentenced to 16 months in prison and 66 other suspected mercenaries received 12-month jail terms on minor immigration and aviation violations.
Mann, 51, showed no emotion at his sentencing. At earlier hearings, he admitted trying to order assault rifles, grenades, anti-tank rocket launchers and other weapons from the Zimbabwe Defense Industries (search) — an offense punishable by a maximum sentence of 10 years.
But he insisted the weapons were to be used for guarding mining operations in the eastern Congo and that he and the others were headed to security jobs there.
Zimbabwe prosecutors say Equatorial Guinea's Spanish-based rebel leader, Severo Moto, offered the group $1.8 million and oil rights to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema (search). Nguema has presided for 25 years over what is widely considered one of the world's most corrupt and oppressive regimes.
Mann, the son of former England cricket captain George Mann and heir to the Watley Ale brewing fortune, graduated from Britain's elite Eton College and Sandhurst military academy.
The 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.
Nineteen others, including Europeans and Africans, are being tried in Equatorial Guinea in the alleged plot. Another defendant, a German, died shortly after his arrest in March after Amnesty International said he appeared to have been tortured.
Last month, Guvamombe acquitted Mann of an additional charge of taking possession of weapons in Zimbabwe. He acquitted the other suspects of weapons charges but convicted them on violations of immigration and aviation laws.
Two men, South Africans Harry Carlse and Lourens Horn, were released Aug 27. Prosecutors claimed they were hired by Mann to inspect the weapons, but acknowledged the weapons were never delivered to them for inspection.
The other 64 defendants and the flight crew pleaded guilty to violating immigration and aviation laws. Those offenses carried a maximum penalty of two years in jail and a fine.