Cameroon's opposition leader Kamto charged with 'rebellion'
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Cameroon's main opposition leader, Maurice Kamto, has been charged by a military court with rebellion, insurrection and "hostility to the homeland," one of his lawyers said Wednesday.
Kamto, who says he was cheated out of the presidency in last October's elections, could theoretically face the death penalty.
He was arrested in the economic capital Douala on January 28 after his party, the Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon (MRC), staged protests in several cities against the election result.
The former government minister was charged at a late-night session of a military court in the capital Yaounde and then transferred to a local prison, according to attorney Emmanuel Simh.
Simh, who is also MRC vice president, said the court charged 28 Kamto supporters with the same offences.
Under Cameroon's legal code, all could face the death penalty although the country has not carried out an execution in more than 30 years.
President Paul Biya, in power for more than three decades, secured a seventh consecutive term last October after winning 71 percent of the vote, according to official results.
But the poll was marred by low turnout and violence, particularly in the country's troubled English-speaking regions, and the opposition says the result was rigged.
Kamto came a distant second with 14 percent of the vote, according to the official outcome.
He maintains he was the rightful winner and the official figures were an "electoral holdup."
About 100 other MRC supporters are to appear on Wednesday before the military court, which will decide whether to charge them.
The anti-Biya marches, held in several towns and cities on January 26, were suppressed by the police. At least six protesters were injured.
The European Union this month accused Cameroon of "disproportionate use of force" in dispersing the demonstrators.
"Finding a solution to the challenges faced by the country can only be achieved through dialogue in a calm and inclusive atmosphere where fundamental rights and the rule of law are respected," it said.
The MRC cancelled other planned protests after Kamto's arrest in a bid to restore calm.
Kamto's lawyers have branded his custody illegal. They say he and other detainees at a special police detention unit in Yaounde were prevented from receiving visitors or getting help from their attorneys.
The MRC says around 200 people arrested during the protests are still being held in the capital. The authorities have said 147 people are in pre-trial detention.
Some of them, including MRC treasurer Alain Fogue, have gone on hunger strike, according to the party.
Kamto's ex-campaign director Paul-Eric Kingue and rapper Valsero are also detained with him.
'Relentless political leader'
Biya has ruled Cameroon since 1982 with support from the army, state administration and the Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (RDPC) that he created in 1985.
Kamto, a 64-year-old lawyer by training, is considered the main opposition to Biya, who turned 86 on Wednesday.
"It's been a long time since Cameroon had an opponent of this stature," analyst Hans de Marie Heungoup at the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank told AFP.
"At the start of his career, some called him spineless, but now he really is a relentless political leader."
French foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll said the government was "worried" by the charges against Kamto.
The Cameroonian opposition "must be able to express itself freely as long as it respects the law," she said in an online news conference.
Human rights groups last month condemned Kamto's arrest and called for his immediate release.
Amnesty International said the wave of detentions "signals an escalating crackdown on opposition leaders, human rights defenders and activists."
"Instead of taking steps towards improving the country's human rights record, we are witnessing the authorities becoming less and less tolerant of criticism. This must stop," said Samira Daoud, its director for West and Central Africa.