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Update: Mebara Still Faces Charges Despite Acquittal 

This is an update of an article posted on May 3, 2012. See original breaking news at the end of this article.

By Roland Akong & Divine Ntaryike Jr

Family members of Jean-Marie Atangana Mebera, ex-minister and former secretary general at the presidency, were thrown into jubilation when the chief judge at the Mfoundi High Court in Yaounde acquitted him of corruption-related charges on Thursday night. But celebrations may be short-lived.

Although Justice Gilbert Slick cleared Mebara of all three charges in his ruling read Thursday at 9:30 p.m., prosecutors are holding another thick dossier on Mebara, still concerning the Albatross Affair – a complicated plot involving several layers of alleged corruption during the process of the purchase of a presidential jet back in 2004.

Court sources told that prosecutors have retained two charges against Mebara. Former Prime Minister Ephraim Inoni, who was recently held in pre-trial detention, is involved in one of the affairs retained against Mebara, we learnt further.

Our sources said they were unsure whether Mebara would be released from pre-trial detention or would be held until the other two matters are completely discharged by the court.

Even the former regime baron’s lawyer, Claude Assira, who confirmed the other two investigations, could not say with certainty whether or not his client is going to be released.

Thursday’s court session started at 1:00 p.m., and Mebara appeared confident, smiling much of the time during the marathon 8-hour court session. But he was not the only person in the dock.

Mebara was cleared of blame alongside Hubert Patrick Marie Otele Essomba, who before his arrest and pretrial detention served as Cameroon’s representative of Aircraft Portfolio Management, APM, a London-based firm tasked with negotiating the purchase by the government of the now-controversial airplane.  Kevin Joseph Walls, head of APM’s mother company was tried in absentia was equally declared legally blameless.

All three men, including Jérôme Mendounga, Cameroon’s former ambassador to the US were initially charged with the attempted misappropriation of public funds amounting to 1,5 billion FCFA; the aiding and abetting of the embezzlement of 121 million FCFA and the theft of 1,5 million FCFA.

The presiding Judge Gilbert Slick absolved Mebara, Otele and Walls from all blame, reiterating that the allegations against them could not be established.  But he maintained the “guilty” ruling on former ambassador Mendouga who was found guilty of defrauding the state by pocketing 121 million FCFA, being the balance of 720 million FCFA that was handed him in connection with the purchase of the jet.

He has been slammed a ten-year jail term after pleading for clemency.  He would have earned a life term.  Meantime, Mebara and Otele are expected to be freed in the days ahead while the plaintiffs, the state of Cameroon have ten days to appeal the verdict.  Mebara can also sue the state for unduly keeping him behind bars for the past four years.

And so four years after the start of the trial, and repeatedly shunned claims of innocence by the acquitted men, the anticorruption crackdown Operation Sparrow Hawk launched in 2006 by President Paul Biya is once again on critics’ scanners.  Many are questioning the essence of dumping several high-profile government officials in jail for such lengthy periods without ample proof, and concluding the operation has the tacit intention of silencing potential rivals of President Paul Biya.

While Mebara is still uncertain of his freedom, Otele will be waving good-bye to fellow inmates at the Kodengui prison, who last 16 April welcomed former PM Chief Ephraim Inoni and ex-territorial administration and decentralization minister Marafa Hamidou Yaya.  Both men were whisked off to incarceration in connection with the Albatross Affair and have since been claiming their innocence. 

In a missive addressed to Biya from the dungeons of the penitentiary facility earlier this week, Marafa declared he was thrown in jail for reasons other than the misappropriation of money destined for the purchase of the presidential jet.  Chief Inoni also voiced similar claims of innocence shortly before his abrupt transfer to Kodengui. 

Their own prosecution is yet to begin amid threats of protests by Marafa acolytes emanating from his native northern parts of the country. Inoni was board chair of Assets Portfolio Management, the Cameroon subsidiary of APM Ltd, even though he officially owned no shares in the company.  He was deputy secretary general at the Presidency of the Republic when APM Cameroon was set up in 2002. 

Original Story

Albatross Affair: Court Frees Mebara
Thursday, May 03, 2012

By Roland Akong — We have just learnt that a panel of judges in Yaounde has pronounced a not-guilty verdict in favour of Jean-Marie Atangana Mebara, a former close ally of President Paul Biya, who has been held at Kondengui Prison since August 6, 2008 on corruption-related charges.

Mebara, who served as minister of higher education, secretary general at the presidency and minister of external relations, has for nearly four years now been at the receiving end of a judicial process that was trying to determine whether he embezzled billions of francs in the corruption-smeared acquisition of a presidential jet (codenamed Albatross) in 2004. At the time, Mebara was secretary general at the presidency and is reported to have played a central role in the deal. But he has always maintained his innocence.

As we wrote this article, the court session was still ongoing. Another accused, Otele Essomba of the Airport Portfolio Management (APM) that was involved in the deal, was also cleared.

Jérôme Mendounga, former Cameroon ambassador to the United States, who played a key role in the purchase of the presidential jet, was however found guilty of embezzling over 100 million FCFA.

Other former regime grandees, including ex-Prime Minister Ephraim Inoni and former powerful regime baron Marafa Hamidou Yaya were recently arrested over the Albatross affair. Their trial is yet to begin.

We will be bringing you details of this story subsequently.

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