As the businessman and son of the former prime minister Baroness Thatcher flew out of Cape Town last night, many of those said to be linked to an alleged coup in Equatorial Guinea were left wondering what he had told investigators in exchange for his freedom.
Equatorial Guinean prosecutors want to question a number of prominent Britons about allegations that they co-financed the alleged coup attempt. Prime among these are London-based Lebanese oil tycoon Eli Calil and London businessman Greg Wales, although Tory peer and novelist Jeffrey Archer and European Union commissioner Peter Mandelson are also wanted for questioning.
Thatcher escaped a possible 15-year sentence under South Africa’s tough anti-mercenary laws by entering a plea bargain under which he will turn state’s witness and co-operate with the Scorpions, the country’s elite prosecution unit equivalent to the FBI, in continuing investigations into the failed coup against President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasago.
Thatcher last night paid a 265,000 fine, which accompanies a four-year suspended sentence, before leaving for Cape Town airport where he boarded a flight to London, from where he will fly to join his wife, Diane, and their two children in Dallas, Texas. He pleaded guilty to investing negligently in a helicopter "without taking proper investigations into what it would be used for".
Lady Thatcher expressed relief yesterday that the case against her son was concluded.
"This has been a difficult time for all of the family," she said. "Obviously I am delighted that it has been brought to an end."
But his release, after nearly six months of virtual house arrest, will send chills through the veins of several prominent men who have been named as backers of the plan to topple President Obiang in court documents lodged in London by lawyers for the Equatorial Guinean leader.
Many will fear he has agreed to expose them and will have taken no comfort from his short statement on the steps of the Cape High Court after yesterday’s hearing.
"There is no price too high for me to pay to be reunited with my family, and I am sure all of you who are husbands and fathers would agree with that," he said.
Nick du Toit, a former South African special forces soldier now serving 34 years in Equatorial Guinea’s Black Beach prison for his role in the attempted coup, said in a signed statement that Mr Wales was the first person to approach him about it.
Du Toit, whose statement was part of the prosecution case against Thatcher, 51, said he met Mr Wales over drinks at Johannesburg’s luxury Sandton Sun Hotel on 4 January last year.
"He [Wales] explained that he had in mind a coup d’tat in Equatorial Guinea and asked if I would help," said Du Toit.
"I said that I had a [fishing] business that I was developing in Equatorial Guinea and refused to assist."
But when Du Toit was called to another meeting in the same hotel three days later with British mercenary Simon Mann, a former Scots Guards and SAS officer, he agreed to arrange transport for the coup.
He further agreed to guide mercenaries to the presidential palace in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea.
Mann was subsequently arrested with 69 mercenaries in Zimbabwe, apparently en route to Equatorial Guinea after attempting to pick up an arms consignment.
Mann was arrested and sentenced to seven years imprisonment. Yesterday, it emerged his sentence had been reduced to four years.
It was not immediately clear whether the reduced sentence was linked to Thatcher’s light sentence. Before the coup attempt Mann and Thatcher were neighbours in the upmarket Cape Town suburb of Constantia.
Opportunities to invest in the plot, say lawyers acting for Equatorial Guinea, were touted in the drawing rooms of London society.
The alleged main architect was Mr Calil, who denies helping organise the coup from his 12 million home in Chelsea.
Mr Calil is a friend and former financial adviser to Lord Archer and a friend of Mr Mandelson.
Mr Calil was born in Nigeria into a prosperous family of Lebanese traders and made his fortune by trading oil in Nigeria.
He introduced Mann to exiled Equatorial Guinea politician Severo Moto who would have been installed as president if the coup had succeeded.
Lord Archer has also denied involvement in the plot, although documents placed with the High Court in London show that a "JH Archer" invested about 70,000 in the adventure through Mann’s bank account.
Equatorial Guinea has accused Mr Wales of being involved in the plot in a high court application to question him. He denies the accusation.
He was seen dining with Mr Calil and Mr Mandelson soon after the plot unravelled last July.
Mr Calil is fingered particularly heavily by Mann in a signed confession from Chikurubi Prison in Zimbabwe.
Mann says Mr Calil, who he first met in January 2003, was the pivotal figure in the plot and introduced him to Mr Moto, who was to be installed in power immediately had the coup succeeded.
Mann said "Calil had done his homework" about who and what was needed to depose President Obiang.
Thatcher’s avoidance of imprisonment was greeted with widespread anger in South Africa yesterday.
"This is indeed an abomination and miscarriage of justice," said the Youth League of the ruling African National Congress in a statement.
"Thatcher has got away with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Our efforts to build a continent free of coups and at peace with itself will never succeed if the likes of Mark Thatcher are allowed to walk free and not face the full might of the law."
Prominent opposition politician Patricia de Lille, the leader of the Independent Democratic Party in Parliament, said: "This shows that the rich can always escape justice. Although there is something to be said for plea bargaining, in this case it means the truth will never be known."