Sir Mark Thatcher pleaded guilty Thursday to unwittingly helping to finance a foiled coup plot in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea in exchange for a $506,000 fine and suspended jail sentence.
Thatcher, the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, admitted in the Cape High Court that he paid to charter a helicopter, which mercenaries planned to use in their attempted takeover. But he maintains he believed it was to be used for humanitarian purposes, according to his lawyers and a person close to the family.
Only later did Mark Thatcher begin to suspect the helicopter would be used for military purposes, according to a statement issued by George van Niekerk, a member of his legal team.
“Although the helicopter was never used in any such mercenary activity, and in fact did not leave southern Africa, Sir Mark had by then committed an attempt to contravene the provisions of” South Africa’s anti-mercenary laws, van Niekerk said.
Judge Abe Motala ordered Thatcher to pay the fine in a deal that lets him leave South Africa to rejoin his wife and two children in the United States. If he does not pay the fine, he faces a five-year prison sentence with a further four years suspended for five years.
“I am willing to pay any price to be reunited with my family,” Thatcher, dressed in a dark blue suit and gold tie, told a large crowd of journalists before he was whisked away in a green BMW. He refused to answer questions.
Across the street, a poster reading “Save me mummy” hung from a window.
A spokesman for Lady Thatcher’s office in London said late Wednesday: “She is very relieved that matters have now been settled and that the worry of these last few months is now over.”
More charges in Equatorial Guinea
Mark Thatcher, who has lived in South Africa since 1995, was arrested at his suburban Cape Town home on Aug. 25 and charged with violating this country’s Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act.
He also faces charges in Equatorial Guinea, where 19 other defendants are already on trial in connection with an alleged plot last year to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who has ruled Africa’s third-largest oil producer for the past 25 years. Officials there had said they would seek Thatcher’s extradition from South Africa.
Equatorial Guinea alleges Thatcher and other mainly British financiers worked with the tiny country’s opposition figures, scores of African mercenaries and six Armenian pilots in a takeover attempt foiled in March.
Prosecutors did not immediately comment on the plea bargain.
The high court in South Africa ordered Thatcher to answer questions submitted by Equatorial Guinea under oath in November, but that appearance was postponed until Feb. 18 to give his lawyers a chance to appeal the ruling.
Van Niekerk said Thatcher had already offered his full cooperation to South African authorities before his arrest and would continue to provide it.