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Lottie

Congolese Singer in French Court

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One of Africa's biggest music stars, the Congolese singer Papa Wemba, has appeared in court in France charged with aiding illegal immigration.

Papa Wemba is suspected of having received payment to procure visas for Congolese nationals who entered France claiming to be his road crew members.

The maximum sentence if he is found guilty is 10 years in jail and a fine of 750,000 euros ($1m or £521,000).

Papa Wemba, 55, faces similar charges in Belgium, where he holds citizenship.

The singer, whose real name is Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba, was arrested in Paris in February last year.

'Humanitarian concern'

According to the French authorities, would-be immigrants from DR Congo paid him $4,500 in return for which he told the French embassy in Kinshasa that they were members of his band or road crew.

French officials became suspicious in 2000 when some 200 people formed his musical entourage, many of them turning up to the airport without instruments.

Papa Wemba has admitted helping some would-be immigrants, but said he was acting out of humanitarian concern.

His lawyer, Yves Leberquier, told French television on Monday that Papa Wemba had simply helped seven people.

"It will be up to the judiciary to establish precisely the facts Papa Wemba can be held responsible for," he said.

"For the time being, he is carrying a can which is far too heavy for him."

Designer clothes

Papa Wemba was granted conditional release after four months in prison, during which he said he underwent a religious conversion.

He has since been allowed to leave France to give concerts.

Papa Wemba was joined by seven other people, including managers from his production company, when he appeared in court in the Paris suburb of Bobigny on Monday.

A flamboyant figure who has been dubbed the king of "rumba rock", Papa Wemba was already a hugely popular performer in the then Zaire before the fashion for African and world music brought him fame in Europe and the US.

He is also renowned as the moving spirit behind a cult movement known as "the Sapeurs" whose members, young men, spend huge amounts of money on designer clothes.

Paris is one of the cult's centres and many of Papa Wemba's supporters are expected to attend the trial.

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