Papa Wemba goes on trial in France for people-trafficking

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The Independent Online

Papa Wemba, the "King of Rhumba Rock" and world music star, appeared in court near Paris yesterday accused of taking money to smuggle scores of his fellow Congolese nationals into France.

Papa Wemba, the "King of Rhumba Rock" and world music star, appeared in court near Paris yesterday accused of taking money to smuggle scores of his fellow Congolese nationals into France.

In a courtroom packed with his fans, Papa Wemba, 55, denied the charges of people trafficking but admitted that he had, "for humanitarian reasons" helped seven people posing as backing musicians and road engineers to enter the country.

Dressed conservatively in blue jeans and a white cotton shirt with big flowers on it, the Congolese rock star, who is known for his high-pitched voice and extravagant taste in designer fashion, told the court: "Numerous people profited from my name to organise all that and I was tempted." He faces similar accusations in Belgium where he now lives.

If convicted in France, he will be sentenced to up to 10 years in jail and a €750,000 (£521,000) fine. French border police grew suspicious after Papa Wemba arrived in France on several occasions with an abnormally large entourage, even for a rock star. His companions were formally declared as musicians or road and sound engineers but the authorities noticed they were carrying no equipment and were not registered as having left the country with the singer's entourage.

The tribunal in Bobigny, north of Paris, heard evidence yesterday of Papa Wemba taking payment of $3,500 (£1,901) a time to smuggle illegal immigrants into France. His wife and seven members of his entourage also appeared before the court. The musician spent four months in Fleury-Mérogis jail, south of Paris, after being arrested in February last year.

Papa Wemba - whose real name is Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba - has been one of Africa's best-loved rock stars for decades. He became popular with a worldwide audience in the 1990s when he recorded with Peter Gabriel and became one of the first performers on the ex-Genesis star's RealWorld record label.

The Congolese singer, who calls himself the King of Rhumba Rock, remains a favourite throughout Africa. He is one of the founders of the Sape movement - the Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantés or translated as the Society of Exciting and Elegant Persons - which he launched with his band Viva la Musica in Zaire in the 1970s.

Originally, the singer denied all knowledge of the people- smuggling operation and suggested members of his entourage had started the business behind his back.

Earlier this year, he partly confessed in an interview with the French press. "They are trying to place too large a hat on my head. I admit to helping to get seven illegal immigrants into the country with 14 musicians, but it was a system that was created in my name before I knew it. I made a mistake in trying to profit from this system," he said.

Websites dedicated to Papa Wemba have been filling in recent days with pleas for his acquittal. A message from Rodolphe Mazombo Menga of Burundi reads: "You know, Papa, I am 25 years young and in all my life I have only loved music through your songs... Let your family, your other family Viva La Musica, not forgetting us the fans, be united in prayer."

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