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Songwriter remains in detention; WiPC concerned for his failing health

(WiPC/IFEX) - WiPC protests the four-month detention of the well known singer-songwriter Lapiro de Mbanga (real name Pierre Roger Lambo Sandjo), reportedly for a song he wrote criticising controversial constitutional amendments in Cameroon. The WiPC fears that Mbanga's detention stems from his critical lyrics, and is therefore in violation of his right to freedom of expression. It is also concerned at reports that his health has deteriorated due to poor prison conditions and lack of adequate medical care. The WiPC calls on the Cameroonian authorities to substantiate the charges against Mbanga or to release him immediately and unconditionally.

Mbanga, 51, was arrested in Mbanga City on 9 April 2008, accused of instigating mass demonstrations and strikes against the high cost of living, which took place at the end of February. However, according to the Media Foundation for Western Africa and local press reports, his arrest was in fact linked to a song he wrote entitled "Constipated Constitution" which warns President Biya of the dangers of controversial constitutional amendments. The Constitutional Amendment Bill, which was adopted on 10 April, allows an unlimited number of presidential mandates (President Biya is 75 and has been in office for 26 years), as well as granting the president immunity for any acts committed while in office. Mbanga has often sung about government corruption and is also known as a member of the opposition party Social Democratic Front (SDF).

Mbanga was detained at Mbanga Principal Prison and later transferred to Nkongsamba principal prison for trial. On 9 July, three months after his arrest, the singer-songwriter appeared at Nkongsamba High Court and was formally charged with inciting youths to riot during the February strike action and of causing damage to property belonging to a company. He appeared in court in shackles.

The singer-songwriter's health has reportedly deteriorated as a result of his imprisonment: he is said to have developed chronic back pain and a chest infection and to have lost 20 kg in weight since his arrest. He has reportedly been denied medical attention. According to his wife, the food and sanitary conditions in prison are very poor.

On 23 July, Mbanga pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. According to local news reports, conflicting evidence was given as to whether the artist had instigated the demonstrations and destruction of property or had in fact intervened to prevent them from taking place. Following a further hearing on 30 July, Lapiro was remanded in custody and the trial was adjourned to 27 August. He faces up to two years in prison if convicted.

Earlier this year, another Cameroonian singer-songwriter who wrote a song criticising the constitutional amendments, Joe La Conscience, was sentenced to six months' imprisonment for organising an allegedly illegal demonstration, but was released in June following a presidential pardon. More than 100 people arrested during the riots have reportedly now been pardoned.

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