Cameroon's main opposition leader, Maurice Kamto, has been charged in a military court with rebellion and other offences, his lawyers have said. The former government minister was arrested in Douala on 28 January after his MRC party organised protests contesting last October's election result. France says it is "worried" by the charges.
Kamto faces charges including "hostility against the homeland, incitement to insurrection, offense against the president of the republic, destruction of public buildings and goods."
If found guilty, he could face the death penalty, his lawyers said Wednesday.
The opposition leader, who says he was cheated out of the presidency in elections last year, was transferred to a prison in the capital Yaounde during the night by a military court.
Twenty-eight members of his Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC) are also on trial for the same charges.
Meanwhile, 100 other supporters were due to appear before the Yaounde military court Wednesday to find out if they too will face a similar fate.
The fact that a military court is the one bringing the charges against Kamto has rattled critics.
"How is it that someone who has never carried a weapon against the government, someone who has never called for armed struggle is judged by a military court?" asks François Ndengwe, Chairman of the African Advisory Board.
"Professor Kamto being judged in a military court is an outrage to the people of good will not only in Cameroon but all over the world," he told RFI.
For Ndengwe, the charges against Kamto illustrate the challenges facing Africa's justice system, often in the hands of autocratic governments.
"It is impossible to have a fair judgment in Africa," he comments, blaming this failure on the "interference" of the International Criminal Court in African matters, most recently in the trial of the Ivory Coast's former president Laurent Gbagbo.
"Africans complained about the ICC trying Laurent Gbagbo but they shouldn't complain. Africans are not able to judge themselves according to the minimum standards of justice and equity, and this is regrettable," he said.
On the domestic front, the charges against Kamto risk aggravating the country's post-electoral crisis.
Restricting democratic space
They are a "clear sign of a new step in the restriction of public liberties that the government of Cameroon has crossed," explains Hans de Marie, a senior researcher at the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Nairobi.
"The charges could increase tribal and ethnic tension in the country, as well as social tension," he told RFI.
Implicit in de Marie's remarks is the fear of a potential civil war.
"The anger and bitterness from opposition members and civil society groups is more and more expressing itself along ethnic lines between the Beti tribe of [president] Paul Biya and the Bamyleke tribe of Maurice Kamto," he comments.
Cameroon is already grappling with unrest in its troubled western Anglophone region after residents there were repressed.
"We know from past experience that it is the restriction of liberties that has triggered the Anglophone crisis," states de Marie.
Kamto has called for an end to the two-year conflict. The opposition leader and his supporters demonstrated in several cities and towns on the 26 January urging an end to the crisis and for a recount of October's election result in which he came second.
It was shortly after this demonstration that Kamto was arrested in the economic capital Douala and how we got to today's charges.
For human rights lawyer Agbor Nkongho, the charges are all too familiar.
"The charges are bogus. These are the same charges that they [the government] brought against me. It's a way to fight against dissent, repress people, and to perpetuate Mr Biya's reign as they have been doing for the last 36 years," he told RFI.
RFI was unable to reach the Cameroonian government for a response, but their position is that Kamto is a an "outlaw" after he defied warnings and declared himself the winner of last October's election results.
French foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll said Wednesday the government was "worried" by the charges against Kamto and urged Paul Biya to allow the opposition to "express itself freely."
Risk of conflict
That may not be enough.
"We find it very low compared to the gravity of the situation," says de Marie.
"None of the key partners of Cameroon has clearly condemned the arrest and detention of Kamto or asked firmly the Cameroonian government to release him," he said.
Rights groups though have condemned the attitude of the Cameroonian government, with Amnesty International saying the arrest of Kamto and his staff signalled an escalating crackdown on the opposition.
"For the sake of peace if not democracy, the international community must act," argues Hans de Marie. The risk of conflict in a country already affected by Boko Haram attacks and grappling with unrest in the Anglophone regions stands to be high, he concludes.