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.
Obiang, president since 1979, has long been known as ruthless and corrupt, but was largely ignored by the West because, well, who cared about Equatorial Guinea? The former Spanish colony was of little importance until liquid gold was discovered near Bioko Island in the mid-1990s.
Suddenly, Obiang was a hail-fellow-well-met, a "good friend" of the U.S., according to Secretary of State Condi Rice, who in 2006 welcomed Obiang to Washington, where he owns two houses. His flamboyant, playboy Lamborghini-driving son, Teodoro, is a Malibu neighbor of Hollywood stars. President Bush reopened the U.S. Embassy in EG in 2003.
One may argue that a fellow who gets involved in overthrowing corrupt governments accepts a certain risk. But one might also insist that even men who live dangerously deserve due process and an assurance of basic human rights.
This is unfamiliar terminology to prisoners at Black Beach prison where disease, torture, starvation and death are commonplace. Amnesty International has reported the imprisonment of a woman -- wife of an imprisoned political dissident -- who shares a cell with 80-100 men without bathroom facilities or privacy. According to Amnesty International, her crime has yet to be determined.
Mann is believed to be shackled and handcuffed 24 hours a day and kept in solitary confinement. Others in his group who preceded him to Black Beach are believed similarly restrained.
Why should anyone care about Simon Mann? After all, thousands of people with no private wealth or social connections are daily tortured, languish and die in third-world prisons.
The answer may be because you have to start somewhere. Simon Mann puts a high-profile name and face on horror where a woman corralled unprotected with 100 men slips through the cracks.
Confounding matters is the fact that Americans are divided as to what constitutes torture and when torture is appropriate. "Never" is the only answer in a nation that reserves the right to express moral outrage when others do the unthinkable.
The world's eyes are on Obiang. With Simon Mann -- and the poor woman down the hall -- Obiang has an opportunity to prove critics wrong about his rule of inhumanity, and the West has a chance to make good on its pledges to protect human rights.
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