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 dominate oil exploration there.
They might care because Mr. Mann, a British, Eton-educated former Special Air Service officer - and, some say, a mercenary, who is accused of planning to overthrow Equatorial Guinea's corrupt government - has apparently been abandoned by officials and others who once supported him. All who remain are his wife, Amanda, his seven children, a handful of friends and his attorney.
Mr. Mann's story 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 Equatorial Guinea, allegedly to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo 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 Equatorial Guinea, but Mr. Mann didn't get that far. He and the others were arrested on the tarmac in Zimbabwe. Mr. 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 this year, he disappeared for several days. His lawyers say he was kidnapped in a Mann-for-oil deal between Mr. Obiang and Zimbabwean President Robert G. Mugabe.
Mr. Mann resurfaced Feb. 1 in Equatorial Guinea, 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.
Mr. 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, Mr. Obiang was a hail-fellow-well-met, a "good friend" of the U.S., according to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who in 2006 welcomed Mr. Obiang to Washington, where he owns two houses. President Bush reopened the U.S. Embassy in Equatorial Guinea 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. Mr. Mann is believed to be shackled and handcuffed 24 hours a day and kept in solitary confinement.
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.
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 Mr. Obiang. He 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.
Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.