Yaoundé, Cameroon | AFP | Cameroon’s main opposition leader Maurice Kamto walked free from jail Saturday after a military court ordered his release at the behest of veteran President Paul Biya.
Kamto was greeted by hundreds of supporters as he was driven away surrounded by a dozen-strong escort of klaxon-blaring vehicles.
The opposition leader was released after nine months imprisonment, and 102 others in detention were also set for release after Biya unveiled a series of surprise conciliatory gestures “if they have not been detained for anything else,” the court said.
Kamto’s lawyer Sylvain Souop added: “We note the release of our clients who should not have been in prison. Maurice Kamto is free.”
After finalising administrative formalities, Kamto left the prison at 4:30 pm (1530 GMT).
Biya, 86 — who has ruled Cameroon with an iron fist for nearly 37 years — on Friday announced he had ordered prosecutions to be dropped against “some” opposition leaders, including a number from the main Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon (MRC) which Kamto leads.
The 102 others set for release include Biya’s former economic advisor Christian Penda Ekoka, lawyer Michele Ndoki and well-known rapper Valsero, known for songs critical of the ruling establishment.
Kamto went on trial with 88 others in a military court in September on charges of insurrection, hostility to the motherland and rebellion — crimes which could carry the death penalty, though this is no longer applied in Cameroon.
Biya’s shock announcement Friday came on the closing day of crunch talks aimed at easing a bloody crisis in Cameroon’s anglophone regions, which were shunned by the main separatist leaders.
The talks also ended with a proposal to give more autonomy to the English-speaking regions, where a two-year armed campaign for independence has been met with a brutal crackdown and cost nearly 3,000 lives, according to the International Crisis Group.
In addition, Biya had Thursday announced the shelving of an investigation and the release of 333 people detained during the crisis.
The two areas in western Cameroon — the Northwest Region and Southwest Region — are home to most of the country’s anglophones, who account for about a fifth of a population that is overwhelmingly French-speaking.
A presidential statement Saturday said that “the head of state reaffirms his determination to pursue relentlessly his efforts seeking ways and means to resolve peaceably the crises and conflicts confronting our country.”
Arrested on January 26, Kamto 65, threw down the gauntlet to the government in challenging the official results of last October’s presidential poll, since when his party has staged a series of peaceful rallies.
The authorities rejected Kamto’s claim he won the poll, placing the law professor registered to the Paris bar second with a 14.23 percent vote share.
The apparent seachange in Biya’s approach comes after months of intransigence and follows international pressure on Cameroon to douse the unrest.
Washington indicated in March that Yaounde would do well to free Kamto — a sentiment repeated since by the European Union and also France.
“The president is well aware that Cameroon is at a crossroads as it is dealing with important crises,” Richard Makon, an expert on Cameroon politics, told AFP.
Born in the western town of Bafoussam on February 15, 1954, Kamto, is a former president of the UN International Law Commission which oversees codification of international law.
From 1996 to 2002 he was Cameroon’s legal representative at the International Court of Justice, notably called to rule on a border dispute with neighbouring Nigeria. Cameroon ultimately was awarded sovereignty over the fish and oil-rich Bakassi Peninsula.
Biya rewarded him by making him minister delegate to the justice ministry in 2004 but he stepped down in 2011 and a year later took over the MRC, a party founded by change-hungry intellectuals.