DAKAR - Specialists in international law and human rights who observed the recent trial of alleged coup plotters and mercenaries in Equatorial Guinea said on Wednesday that it had been conducted unfairly and in breach of international conventions.
Lengthy prison sentences were handed down by a court in the capital Malabo last Friday against 20 people, 11 of them foreigners.
All were convicted of plotting to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema by helping to prepare an abortive invasion of the oil-rich West African nation by South African mercenaries .
Marise Castro, who observed the proceedings for Amnesty International, told IRIN by telephone from London that "it was not in our view a fair trial."
Mark Ellis, Executive Director of the London-based International Bar Association which also sent an observer to the hearings, said "the trial fell short of international fair trial standards."
Five South Africans and six Armenians were found guilty of involvement in the failed coup against President Teodoro Obiang Nguema and were sentenced to between 14 and 34 years in jail. Two Equatorial Guineans who appeared in court received lighter sentences.
Castro said the 15 foreign nationals arrested on 8 March in the capital Malabo - one of whom died in custody nine days later - had been held "day and night since their arrest in handcuffs and (ankle) shackles that weren't even removed to go to the toilet."
"That in itself is torture," the Amnesty observer said.
Castro added that the prisoners had been deprived of adequate medicine and food during their eight months in detention and had not been allowed proper access to their families,
Ellis said the court's refusal to take into consideration allegations of torture by the defendants and their lawyers was "a fundamental breach of internarional law."
Former South African soldier Nick du Toit, the alleged leader of the group and the sole defendant to have initially confessed to a role in a conspiracy, said his confession had been obtained by torture. The defendants said they had signed statements under duress.
"But the court just ignored that," Ellis said. "That is inconsistent with international law. A court must record such an allegation and order an investigation if necessary."
Castro quoted one of the defence lawyers as saying "the defendants still had marks on their bodies."
Two of the defendants said in court that German national, Gerhardt Merz, also arrested in March, had died in front of them as a result of torture in Black Beach prison. The authorities said he died of cerebral malaria.
Ellis said the government of Equatorial Guinea also violated international law by failing to notify defendants of the charges during the pre-trial period and then denying them access to legal counsel until three days before the trial began last August.
Both the IBA and Amnesty International criticized the court's failure to provide professional interpretors and translations of statements both during the investigation and during the hearings. These were conducted in Spanish, the official language of Equatorial Guinea.
The small country of 500,00 people consists of Bioko, a mountainous volcanic island formally known as Fernando Poo, and a nearby block of jungle-covered territory on the African continent. It was ruled by Spain until independence in 1968.
Castro said some of the defendants' claims of torture "were not even translated into Spanish by the interpretor, who was biased. " She noted that he was the Attorney General's official interpretor.
The Amnesty observer also noted that one of the South African defendants in court spoke only Portuguese. The court was not aware of this and had not provided an interpretor, she added. A Russian interpretor was provided for the Armenian defendants. A delegation from Yerevan is currently in Equatorial Guinea discussing their fate.
Castro and Ellis both lamented that the prosecution had failed to present any evidence to substantiate the charges, bar the defendants' own statements.
"Weapons produced by the prosecution were shown as examples of the type of guns they intended to buy in Zimbabwe," Castro said.
She said no warrants had been issued for the arrest of the accused and their statements had been taken by the attorney general, not by investigating magistrate as prescribed by the country's own legal system.
The IBA stressed the fact that the court had broken Equatorial Guinea's own judicial rules by deciding two weeks ago to also place on trial nine exiled opposition leaders in absentia alongside the original defendants.
It was unclear whether any of these individuals who were tried in their absence had been informed of the charges against them and whether any effort had been made to bring them before the court, Ellis said.
Severo Moto, the Spanish-based leader of a government-in-exile, was sentenced to 63 years in jail at the trial. It was the third time that a court in Equatorial Guinea had convicted him of political offences and imposed a prison sentence on Moto in his absence
The accused were found guilty of preparing the way for an abortive mercenary invasion last March by a planeload of mercenaries who were intercepted in Zimbabwe on their way to Malabo.
The plane, carrying 67 mainly South African mercenaries, was prevented from reaching Equatorial Guinea after it was detained during a stopover in Harare to pick up weapons.
Although many of the defendants in the trial in Malabo were sentenced to long prison terms, the court ignored prosecution calls for the death sentence to be imposed against du Toit, the alleged leader of a mercenary group already placed inside in the country, and Moto, the exiled opposition leader who would allegedly have become president had the coup succeeded.
Obiang, the present head of state, has been widely accused of corruption and human rights abuse. He has ruled Equatorial Guinea since he deposed and killed his uncle, Macias Nguema, in a 1979 coup, accumulating considerable personal wealth from oil revenues which have poured in over the past decade.
Equatorial Guinea now produces 350,000 barrels per day of oil and has become Africa's third-biggest oil producer after Nigeria and Angola.
The state prosecutor alleged during the trial that plot to overthrow Obiang and install Moto in his place, had received support and finance from prominent individuals in South Africa, Britain and Spain, including Mark Thatcher, the son of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.