Kathleen Parker

WASHINGTON -- Most Americans won't have heard of Simon Mann and may wonder why they should care that he is being held illegally in one of the world's most notorious prisons, where torture is routine and human rights nonexistent.

They might care because that country holding him, Equatorial Guinea, is a major provider of oil to the U.S. and because U.S. companies -- including Marathon Oil, Amerada Hess and Chevron Texaco -- dominate oil exploration there.

They might care because Mann, a British, Eton-educated former Special Air Service officer and, some say, "mercenary," who is accused of planning to overthrow Equatorial Guinea's (EG) corrupt government, has apparently been abandoned by officials and others who once supported him.

All that remain are his wife, Amanda, who recently established a Web site (www.freesimonmann.com), his seven children, a handful of friends and his attorney.

Mann's story, familiar to Brits through countless news reports and at least three books, has the feel of the espionage movie it will doubtless become. In short, he and a planeload of more than 60 soldiers landed in Zimbabwe in March 2004 where they were trying to purchase arms before heading to EG, allegedly to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema and install a democratic government under opposition leader Severo Moto, who is in exile in Spain.

As reported elsewhere, Spain was well aware of these plans and even sent two ships to EG, but Mann didn't get that far. He and the others were arrested on the tarmac in Zimbabwe. Mann, now 55, was tried and sentenced to seven years in a Zimbabwe prison but was released for good behavior after serving just three. Immediately upon his release earlier this year, he disappeared for several days. His lawyers say he was kidnapped in what they called a Mann-for-oil deal between Obiang and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

Mann resurfaced Feb. 1 in EG, where he was paraded in shackles before television cameramen and has been imprisoned since.

The situation may be dire, according to friends who expect him to be tortured for information leading to his coup backers. (Obiang, who enjoys his reputation for cannibalizing his enemies, has made colorful promises regarding Mann.) Mann's supporters are hanging their hopes on outrage among those who may just hate the West's moral code of convenience enough to make a difference.

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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