UPDATE 9/6: Valsero’s court appearance has been postponed until October 8. Follow @penamerica and @atriskartists for news.

(New York, NY) – The arrest, ongoing detention, and charges against Cameroonian rapper Gaston Serval Abe, known as Valsero, are inexcusable violations of artistic freedom of expression, PEN America said in a statement today. Arrested earlier this year in the vicinity of a pro-democracy demonstration, Valsero will appear before a military court Friday and could face the death penalty. He’s charged with rebellion against the state, terrorism, insurrection, inciting public disorder, and propagating false information. 

“Valsero, along with his sound engineer, has been imprisoned for over six months for merely attending a peaceful march in protest of the last election results in Cameroon,” said Julie Trébault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) at PEN America. “This is clearly a targeted attempt to silence an internationally known and beloved rapper who strives, both through his music and his activism, to critique the government and inspire social change. His ongoing detention in poor conditions and the exaggerated charges against him are an intolerable affront both to artistic freedom and human dignity. We urge the Cameroonian government to immediately drop the charges against Valsero and uphold its domestic and international commitments to protect freedom of expression and ensure that artists are free to create without fear”.

Critics say Valsero is being persecuted for his work, which often includes political themes. Songs like “Çe pays tue les jeunes” (“This country kills the youth”), “Ne me parlez plus de ce pays” (“Don’t talk about this country to me anymore”),  and the well-known “Lettre au president” (“Letter to the President”) have earned both the ire of the government and admiration of fans across Cameroon. Many of his new songs reference current crises in Cameroon and the current government, in power for nearly four decades. 

Although his work fell afoul of censorship laws, his 2008 debut album, “Poltiquement instable” (“Politically unstable”), became a runaway success, earning him the title “The General” from fans across the country. Beyond his rap career, he is also an engaged activist, starting initiatives such as “Jeune et Fort” (“Young and Strong”), which promotes education through citizenship, democracy, and electoral culture, and his new “Our Destiny” association, which aims to empower young people to take control of their existence for the benefit of the country.

Valsero was arrested on January 26 in Yaoundé on the margins of a peaceful demonstration protesting last year’s national elections, which many deemed to be rigged in support of the current president, Paul Biya. Maurice Kamto, the opposition leader, had organized marches all over the country on that day, but the protestors were met with widespread police suppression, and both Kamto and Valsero were detained. Valsero is not a member of the opposition party. 

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC here.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

CONTACT: Stephen Fee, Director of Communications, sfee@pen.org, +1 202 309 8892