YAOUNDE (Reuters) - Cameroon authorities have freed a French national whose 17-year imprisonment on corruption charges became a source of tension between the two countries and drew appeals from France’s president and the U.N. human rights agency.
Michel Atangana, 49, a French national of Cameroon origin, and former Cameroon Health Mnister Titus Edzoa, were found guilty in 1997 of embezzling about $2.3 million and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Both denied the charges and were freed on Monday.
Before their imprisonment, Edzoa, 69, a former adviser to Cameroon’s long-serving President Paul Biya, resigned from his cabinet position and announced he would challenge Biya in the 1997 election. Atangana was his campaign manager.
The two were due to complete their prison term in 2012 but new charges where brought against them and both were found guilty and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in October 2013.
This prompted an outcry from France, the UN rights commission and international rights groups who said the trial was unfair and politically motivated.
“Thierry Michel Atangana was freed this evening. He is at the French embassy,” his lawyer Charles Tchoungang, told journalists outside the embassy gates in the capital Yaounde.
French President Francois Hollande wrote to Atangana in January last year, saying no matter what crime he may have committed, the second sentence was particularly heavy.
Hollande said the French government would do everything to make sure Atangana was treated fairly.
Atangana and Edzoa’s release on Monday came after Biya signed a special decree last week to pardon a category of prisoners as part of celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the reunification of the central African nation.
Biya, 81, has ruled central Africa’s largest economy for three decades after coming to power in 1982 when his predecessor resigned.
He won a fresh seven-year term in 2011 polls that were criticised as unfair. Observers said the term would likely be his last due to his age.
Reporting by Anne Mireille Nzouankeu; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Cynthia Osterman