October 20, 2008

President Paul Biya
Fax: +237 22 22 08 70
Email: cellcom@prc.com

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice
Mr. Amadou Ali
Fax: +237 22 23 00 05

Your Excellencies,

On behalf of the 3,300 members of PEN American Center, an international organization of writers dedicated to protecting freedom of expression wherever it is threatened, we are writing to protest the sentence and fine imposed on singer-songwriter Lapiro de Mbanga.

According to our information, on September 24, 2008, Mbanga (real name Pierre Roger Lambo Sandjo), who has been detained since his arrest on April 9, was found guilty of allegedly taking part in riots protesting the high cost of living in Cameroon in February 2008. He was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay a fine of 280 CFA francs as compensation for damage caused during the riots. Mr. Mbanga was convicted of three of the six charges against him: “complicity in looting;” “destruction of property;” “arson;” “obstructing streets;” “degrading the public or classified property;” and “forming illegal gathering” on the grounds that, as a local traditional leader, his presence during the protests galvanized the rioters. Mbanga’s wife maintained that he had actually calmed people down and prevented them from burning down Mbanga town hall. Some evidence to this effect was reportedly presented in court during the trial. It was further argued that Mbanga would not have been allowed to film the events, as he did, had he been an outsider. However, the riots were widely televised and none of the journalists who filmed the footage have been brought to trial. Moreover, Mbanga’s sentence, almost six months after the events in question, is twice that received by the actual authors of the riots, who were handed 18-month prison terms the month after the riots and subsequently received a presidential pardon.

The charges were reportedly made in retaliation for Mbanga’s outspoken criticism of the government, particularly in a song he wrote, entitled “Constipated Constitution,” which warns President Biya of the dangers of controversial constitutional amendments. Mbanga is also known as a member of the opposition party Social Democratic Front. Following his conviction, he was taken in chains to Nkongsamba principal prison to serve his term, and his defense is appealing the verdict. His health has reportedly deteriorated as a result of the six months he had already spent in prison, where the food and sanitary conditions are poor. He has reportedly been denied medical attention. .

PEN American Center is seriously concerned that Lapiro de Mbanga was charged and convicted in violation of his right to freedom of expression, as guaranteed by the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and Article 19 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cameroon is a signatory. We therefore respectfully call for his immediate and unconditional release.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Hannah Pakula                   
Chair, Freedom to Write Committee   

Larry Siems
Director, Freedom to Write and International Programs

CC: H.E. Mr. Jerome Mendouga
Ambassador of the Republic of Cameroon to the U.S.
2349 Massachusetts Avenue,
N.W. Washington D.C. 20008
Fax: (202) 387-3826

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