PEN International welcomes the release of singer-songwriter Lapiro de Mbanga (real name: Pierre Roger Lambo Sandjo) on April 8, 2011. Mbanga was freed on completion of a three-year prison sentence for allegedly instigating anti-government riots. However, PEN believes that Mbanga, who is known as an outspoken critic of the Cameroonian government both as a songwriter and an opposition party member, was punished for his critical views, in violation of his right to freedom of expression.

Background Information

The well known singer-songwriter Lapiro de Mbanga was released from New Bell Prison in Douala on April 8, 2011, on completion of a three-year sentence.

There were concerns that Mbanga would be detained beyond the expiration of his sentence due to the Cameroonian government’s fear of how people would react to his release in the run-up to presidential elections in October 2011. Mbanga is a member of the opposition party Social Democratic Front (SDF). However, despite initial claims by the prison authorities that he was merely being transferred to another detention center, Mbanga was released one day earlier than anticipated and returned to his home in Mbanga City.

Mbanga was arrested in Mbanga City on April 9, 2008, accused of instigating mass demonstrations and strikes against the high cost of living in Cameroon that had taken place two months prior. However, according to the Media Foundation for Western Africa (MFWA), his arrest stemmed from a song he wrote entitled “Constipated Constitution” which warns President Biya of the dangers of the constitutional amendments. The Constitutional Amendment Bill, which was adopted on April 10, 2008, allows an unlimited number of presidential mandates, as well as granting the president immunity for any acts committed while in office. President Biya has been in office since 1982.

On September 24, 2008, Mbanga was found guilty as charged and sentenced to three years in prison and hefty fines. Mbanga appealed the sentence but his final appeal before the Supreme Court had still not been heard by the time he was released. Mbanga faced extremely harsh and overcrowded conditions in prison and developed health problems as a result, including typhoid fever and respiratory problems. In June 2010, a group of U.S. lawyers working with the campaigning group Freedom Now submitted Mbanga’s case to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

In a local media interview following his release, when asked what he plans to do now, Mbanga commented: “Power creates monsters. If, because of a little seller of tomatoes the regime fell in Tunisia, I think that a singer can also change things in Cameroon. The Haitian President is a singer.”

However, when asked if he is planning on standing for election in October, Mbanga replied that he is not, and continues: “I think that such duties are not made for a normal man. Those who have understood the delicacy and the demands of these duties stay in power for a maximum of eight years. Because God only knows that after eight years, that man is no longer normal. But when instead of that you decide to stay for 29 years, 40 years, I have to ask myself why.”

Mbanga added that he has written a book entitled Cabale politico-judiciaire ou la mort programmée d’un combattant de la liberté (Politico-judicial cabal or the planned death of a freedom fighter), for which he is currently seeking a publisher.

According to Freemuse, which has campaigned for Mbanga’s release along with PEN, it is feared that the songwriter may face ongoing security concerns. Prior to his release, Mbanga said he feared for his safety and that of his family and that he was considering going into exile.

Mbanga was a recipient of the 2008 Oxfam/Novib PEN Award for Free Expression. In November 2009, he was one of five cases highlighted for PEN's annual Day of the Imprisoned Writer. The same month, he was also awarded the Freedom to Create Imprisoned Artist Prize.

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