The Thatcher Dossier
The Thatcher Dossier
Yet again, Mummy appears to have saved Mark Thatcher, paying his fine and playing a key role in the plea bargain, according to South African police sources. Kim Sengupta and Karyn Maughan in Cape Town report on the latest chapter in the career of the former premier’s only son.
14 January 2005
Sitting in the cockpit of the Allouette helicopter as it banked over the South African veldt last March, the vista must have looked golden to Sir Mark Thatcher. He was about to embark on a great adventure and the prize was no less than control of an African nation’s oil wealth.
The plan was to use the helicopter as a gunship in a coup that would overthrow the president of Equatorial Guinea and replace him with an opposition leader. The reward for the kingmakers would be millions of dollars in oil concessions.
But by yesterday, the dreams of fabulous wealth had crashed. Sir Mark Thatcher sat frowning, clutching his worry beads, in Cape Town High Court. A banner hanging from a building opposite read " Save Me, Mummy", while a small group of protestors standing at the entrance shouted : "Shame, shame, shame."
Asked whether he agreed to the prosecution deal which spared him a jail term, Thatcher’s voice shook as he bobbed his head and repeated : "Yes, I do. Yes, I do." By the time he had emerged from the courtroom, however, Baroness Thatcher’s son had regained some of his composure. Adjusting the knot of his tie, he declared : "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."
In London, Baroness Thatcher said : "This has been a difficult time for all of the family - obviously I am delighted that it has been brought to an end. I know that what matters to Mark is now to be reunited with Diane and the children as soon as possible." But this attempt by mother and son to paint a picture of noble sacrifice for the sake of family did little to disguise the shoddy reality - that what was left of 51-year-old Mark Thatcher’s reputation now lies in ruins.
It is unclear whether, with a felony conviction, Thatcher will be allowed into America. The US embassy in London said last night that British citizens with such a conviction have to apply for a visa, and "each application would be decided on a case-by-case basis".
Time and again, Thatcher has been accused of shady business practices and shamelessly milking his mother’s name to clinch lucrative commissions on arms and construction contracts in the Middle East. Each time he denied the claims, and Baroness Thatcher stood by her son. Their closeness was evident when she broke down in public after he got lost in the Sahara while taking part in the Paris-Dakar car rally in the 1980s.
Now Thatcher has pleaded guilty in court, abandoning his pretence that he knew nothing about the conspiracy to take over the government of Equatorial Guinea, and has admitted contravening the country’s Foreign Military Assistance Act by acting "recklessly".
Yet again, Mummy has saved him. According to South African police sources, Baroness Thatcher, who was in Cape Town over Christmas and New Year, played a key role in getting the administration to accept the deal and her son’s plea of dolus eventualis.
This means that Thatcher has been spared prison, incurring, instead, a four -year suspended jail sentence and a fine of 3m rand --- around £ 265,000. It is believed Baroness Thatcher will pay the fine - just as she paid for his bail.
The deal has caused anger among some of the officers of the Scorpion unit in charge of investigating the coup. Only last week they were leaking details of how the case against Thatcher had been strengthened by new and damning evidence. Their sources were three of the men who plotted the coup - Crause Steyl, Harry Carlse and Lourens Horn. All had faced lengthy terms in prison, but in return for testifying against Thatcher, this was reduced to fines.
The crux of the case against Thatcher lay in $275,000 he had paid to charter two helicopters. According to yesterday’s court plea, he originally paid the money in the belief that they would be used for an air ambulance service. He had found out subsequently that they were going to be used in the coup, but had still continued with the deal. However, Steyl, a pilot, told the police that Thatcher had known the true purpose of the helicopters all along, and had had taken them on test flights to gauge their suitability.
Steyl gave details of meetings Thatcher had attended where the plot was said to have been formulated, and he is also said to have provided tape recordings of phone calls that incriminated the former Prime Minister’s son. The Scorpion unit had telephone records of their own, of dozens of calls that Thatcher made to, and received from, others implicated in the plot. These calls grew in volume in the days before the ill-fated coup attempt.
Tracing those alleged to have formed the core of the conspiracy reveals an extraordinary list of wealthy people, with a core of upper middle-class Britons, many from the political right, who believed they could manipulate the fate of a country. The ruler of Equatorial Guinea, President Teodoro Obiang, a man accused by his opponents of crimes ranging from corruption to cannibalism, was to be removed and replaced by opposition leader Severo Moto, who had taken refuge in Spain. The leader of the private army of mercenaries which would carry out the mission was Simon Mann, an Old Etonian and former SAS officer.
Mann, who hoped to make $10m from the operation, invited Thatcher - his neighbour in Cape Town - to invest in the venture. At the time, Thatcher was living in a £2m mansion in the affluent suburb of Constantia after emigrating from Britain, via the US, to spare his mother, it was said, further embarrassment. During Christmas 2003, Thatcher held a series of poolside parties at his home. Among those attending were figures from the mercenary world, with Mann a constant presence. The Equatorial Guinea government claims that by this time the coup plot was already advanced.
Despite the Constantia mansion and other overt trappings of wealth, it is unclear just how much money Thatcher had left at this point. There were also persistent rumours that his marriage to 45-year-old Diane, a Texan heiress, was in trouble.
More than $2m was said to have been raised for the coup and the names of the backers were kept in what became known as the "wonga list".
Names linked to the mercenaries included Lord Archer, the disgraced peer and former Conservative Party deputy chairman ; David Hart, who was Baroness Thatcher’s advisor during the miners’ strike and remains close to her ; Ely Calil, a millionaire Lebanese-born oil trader, and businessman Greg Wales.
Documents show that a JH Archer ( Lord Archer’s initials) paid Mr Mann £74,000 by credit transfer four days before the former soldier was arrested. Lord Archer’s representatives say he had " no prior knowledge" of the coup and "now considers the matter closed". Mr Hart, Mr Wales and Mr Calil denied any involvement in the conspiracy.
Through Mr Calil, the name of Peter Mandelson was drawn into the affair. He had offered his flat to the former Northern Ireland Secretary, and current European Union Trade Commissioner, when Mr Mandelson was forced to sell his house in Notting Hill Gate, west London, after admitting he had received an undisclosed loan from fellow minister Geoffrey Robinson.
A report obtained by the South African authorities claimed Mr Calil discussed the projected coup with Mr Mandelson during a lunch at a fashionable Lebanese restaurant, Noura, in Belgravia. The report was written by Nigel Morgan, a former Irish Guards officer and a member of the Tory think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies. Mr Morgan, who knows both Mann and Thatcher, recorded : "Calil recently met with Mandelson about the EG/Moto/Mann issue ... Calil says Mandelson assured him he would have no problems from the British government and invited Mr Calil to see him again ’if you need something done’."
Asked about the meeting, Mr Mandelson responded : "I have consistently denied speaking to Mr Calil about this and he has also confirmed that there has not been any discussion between us ... I have no knowledge of any coup and he [Mr Calil] has not sought advice on it."
However, the matter of just how much the British government knew about the coup was pursued by the Conservatives. In response to questions to Tony Blair and Jack Straw by Michael Ancram, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Mr Straw was forced to retract denials that the Foreign Office had any prior knowledge of the plot. He revealed that the Government had received detailed reports about the conspiracy from a foreign intelligence service and was bound by a duty of confidentiality not to disseminate the information.
However, news of the coup appears to have been widely leaked, and Mann and his contingent of 66 mercenaries were arrested in Harare on the way to Equatorial Guinea last March. Within 24 hours the EG regime had rounded up 14 men, including a former South African soldier, Nick Du Toit, in Malabo, the capital.
While awaiting trial in Zimbabwe, Mann wrote to his wife Amanda and his lawyers " Our situation is not good and it is very URGENT. They (the lawyers) get no reply from Smelly and Scratcher ..." Colleagues of Mann confirm that "Smelly" refers to Mr Calil and "Scratcher" is Thatcher (the nickname is a legacy of the eczema he suffered from when he was young).
The Equatorial Guinea government began a civil action for damages against those allegedly involved in the coup plot, including Thatcher who insisted that he had no knowledge of the plot. South African police raided Thatcher’ home at 6.45am of 25 August last year. He was arrested and charged under Section Two of the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act and released on bail of £165,000 - paid by Baroness Thatcher - and his passport was impounded. Diane and the two children promptly left for Texas.
According to friends, the rest of the family left South Africa because they were in danger. Thatcher is said to have received threats from one of the mercenaries who wanted him to produce money to help release Mann and others in Zimbabwe. He was told in a telephone call : "We know where your children go to school."
As the weight of evidence mounted, Thatcher was said to have become increasingly despondent. In a recent interview, he protested that he had become a pariah in the business world. He said he felt "like a cork floating down the Colorado". The bail conditions meant he was not allowed to meet Baroness Thatcher at the airport when she arrived to spend Christmas in Cape Town. Leonie Frieda, a gossip columnist who visited the Thatchers with her husband Andrew Roberts, a historian, wrote of : "The world’s most famous mummy’s boy ... awaiting the extradition papers [from Equatorial Guinea] at any moment, wifeless, childless, and to a large extent friendless ... his sad eyes belied the chipper, breezy chat".
Thatcher’s lawyers had repeatedly sought a plea bargain with the South African authorities, but with no success. The police insisted that they had more than enough evidence to convict and put him in prison.
But in the end a deal was done, and Thatcher appeared in court. The South African authorities said he had agreed to help them with their inquiries. However, the overwhelming feeling among senior police officers is that, with the most high-profile of the targets now dealt with, the investigation will now be wound down.
© 2005 Independent News and Media (NI)
Publié avec l’aimable autorisation de NI.