Thatcher plays his get out of jail card

Key points

• Former premier’s son in plea bargain

• He admits ‘unwitting’ role in foiled coup

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• Admission leaves baronet’s reputation in tatters

• Deal means he is free to leave South Africa today

Key quote

"The charges he has pleaded to do not include anything connected with an attempted coup" - source close to Thatcher’s South African legal team

Story in full SIR Mark Thatcher will today tell a South African court that he played a role in a failed African coup attempt, as part of a plea bargain which will see him avoid prison.

Thatcher, 51, is expected to pay a 300,000 fine and admit that he unknowingly helped plotters as they prepared to launch a coup against the government of Equatorial Guinea, a small oil-rich dictatorship in western Africa.

The deal will allow him to join his wife and children in the United States as soon as today, but the admission will also leave the baronet’s reputation in tatters.

Sipho Ngwema, a spokesman for the South African prosecutors’ office, last night refused to discuss the reason for Thatcher’s unexpected court appearance, but people close to the financier, one-time rally driver, and son of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, said an agreement had been reached that would let him leave the country almost immediately.

It is understood that the South African authorities first offered the prospect of a plea bargain in November. Thatcher initially rejected the offer, insisting he would protest his absolute innocence.

But friends in South Africa and London gradually persuaded him that the stakes were too high - the maximum sentence he could have faced would be 15 years - and that the prosecutors were too determined to secure a high-profile conviction.

"He will be free to leave South Africa to see his family," said a friend. "If he gets his passport back tomorrow [Thursday], I expect he will fly out of South Africa tomorrow."

Thatcher’s compromise with South African prosecutors may also turn up the heat on other public figures alleged to have links to the planned coup.

There was speculation last night that Thatcher’s plea bargain could include agreeing to provide information about the plot and those involved in it.

A spokesman for Thatcher confirmed that he was co-operating fully with the South African authorities, but insisted he could not supply information about the coup plot "because he doesn’t know anything about it".

Simon Mann, an Old Etonian former SAS officer and friend of Thatcher, is currently in jail in Zimbabwe after his plane to Equatorial Guinea was intercepted by the authorities.

Mann was leading a 70-strong team of alleged mercenaries. He was convicted of trying to buy weapons for the coup attempt. At least one of his letters from his Harare jail has referred to seeking help from "Scratcher," a nickname Thatcher acquired while at Harrow school.

It is understood that Thatcher, who has lived in South Africa since 1995, will plead guilty to a technical offence relating to a helicopter that was to be used to support Mann’s men in overthrowing Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the president of Equatorial Guinea.

Thatcher had admitted a link to the helicopter bought by Crause Steyl, a South African pilot convicted last month of violating South African laws against aiding foreign coups.

Plotters were said to have worked with the tiny country’s opposition figures, scores of African mercenaries and six Armenian pilots in the takeover attempt foiled in March. They intended to install an opposition politician as the figurehead leader of Africa’s third largest oil producer, prosecutors said.

Until yesterday, Thatcher had insisted that he had done nothing wrong, believing the payments he made for the helicopter were investments in an air ambulance service.

But Mr Steyl is believed to have agreed to give evidence against his co-conspirators to avoid a jail sentence, and that may have persuaded Thatcher to change his approach.

Thatcher, who has been under house arrest in Cape Town, will be left with a criminal record after his admission.

Under section two of South Africa’s Foreign Military Assistance Act, Thatcher is expected to admit that he came to suspect the helicopter was to be used in mercenary activity, but failed to inform the authorities. He will maintain his insistence that he did not play any intentional part in the planning of the coup.

"The charges he has pleaded to do not include anything connected with an attempted coup," said a source close to Thatcher’s South African legal team last night.

During the Apartheid era, South Africa was traditionally the base for international mercenary groups who were frequently involved in fomenting revolution and bloodshed across Africa.

Determined to shed that image, South Africa’s ANC government passed tough anti-mercenary laws and promised to co-operate with other governments to put down the trade in clandestine military "services".

It was unclear last night what Thatcher’s deal with the South African authorities would mean for Equatorial Guinea’s attempt to extradite him. Mr Obiang, who has a long record of violence towards political opponents, has vowed a grisly revenge on those he accused of plotting against him.

About 40 people are still facing trials in Equatorial Guinea over the alleged coup. Several have claimed they have been tortured while in custody.

South Africa’s high court ordered Thatcher to answer under oath questions submitted by Equatorial Guinea in November. After a request from defence lawyers, that appearance was postponed until 18 February to give Thatcher’s team time to prepare a formal appeal against the ruling which would have forced him to testify.

Friends of Baroness Thatcher last night warned that the public disgrace of her favourite child could badly affect the former premier’s health. Now 79, she was told by doctors three years ago to end all public engagements after suffering a series of strokes.

Gerald Howarth, a Tory front-bencher who remains close to Baroness Thatcher said: "She is a very resilient woman but she is also a mother - it is bound to be a concern."

A spokesman for Baroness Thatcher last night said she was "very relieved that matters have now been settled and that the worry of these last few months is now over".