Washington, DC: In response to a petition filed by Freedom Now and lawyers with the law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has issued an opinion that the detention of Pierre Rodger Lambo Sandjo (a.ka. Lapiro de Mbanga) by the Government of Cameroon was arbitrary and a violation of international law. In its opinion dated September 1, 2011 but only now released, the UN Working Group, an expert panel of independent human rights experts from around the world, calls for the government to pardon Mr. Mbanga and to pay him compensation.

Lapiro de Mbanga is a popular singer-songwriter and political activist who was wrongfully imprisoned in Cameroon in Spring 2008 and accused of fomenting protests that took place in February 2008. Mr. Mbanga was charged with complicity in looting and destruction of property; however, the charges against Mr. Mbanga were baseless and were brought in retaliation for his criticism of the government. Months before his arrest, Mr. Mbanga released a song he wrote entitled “Constitution Constipée” in which he criticizes President Paul Biya’s three decades in power. For his artistic expression, Mr. Mbanga was sentenced to three years in prison and substantial monetary fines following a trial that failed to meet international standards of due process.

On April 8, 2011, Mr. Mbanga was released from detention after serving his full prison term. Despite his release from prison, Mr. Mbanga remains under pressure from authorities to pay fines totaling over a half million US dollars. Attempts to appeal his conviction and penalty in Cameroon have been unsuccessful.

In its opinion, the Working Group recognized that the charges against Mr. Mbanga were a means to punish him for exercising his fundamental rights to freedom of expression, opinion, association, and political participation. It concluded that, “[t]he deprivation of liberty of Mr Lapiro de Mbanga is the direct consequence of the exercise of his right to peacefully express his opinion.” Furthermore, the Working Group found that there were “serious infringements” on Mr. Mbanga’s right to a fair trial, particularly the “lack of effective appeal”, rendering his detention arbitrary. The Working Group called on the Cameroonian government to grant Mr. Mbanga, “an immediate amnesty or pardon or any other means to prevent another detention for the same facts, due to the lack of payment of the fine imposed.”

Freedom Now’s executive director Maran Turner: “We welcome the United Nation’s confirmation of Lapiro’s innocence, and the recognition of Lapiro’s internationally-protected right to express opinions critical of government through music. Unfortunately, the Cameroonian government already took three years of Lapiro’s life that he can never get back – and for this the government owes Lapiro de Mbanga compensation for his wrongful imprisonment.”

Freedom Now and lawyers with the law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP represented Mr. Mbanga as his international pro bono legal counsel. Freedom Now coordinated its advocacy campaign with other organizations, in particular the Copenhagen-based international organization Freemuse.