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Situation of rights in Cameroon: Amnesty Int’l opens can of worms

Lawyers protest in Bamenda 2016 © All rights reserved

Issa Tchiroma, Cameroon’s Minister of Communication, commonly referred to as government spokesperson, organised several press conferences in the course of 2016 to present government’s versions of controversial events in the country. Some of the news conferences were focused on the crackdown on peaceful protests, violation of human rights, unfair trials and issues related to the fight against Boko Haram.

In most cases, Tchiroma’s outings have always been government’s word on the one hand against public opinion and media reports on the other hand.

Amnesty International, reputed for its in-depth investigations and intriguing reports, published its 2016 report on the situation of human rights in countries around the world. In its foreword, Cameroon featured several times among the list of countries that saw widespread patterns of violent and arbitrary crackdowns on gatherings and protests, as well as “hallmark protest bans, arbitrary arrests, detentions and beatings as well as killings.”

Despite attempts last year by Tchiroma to discredit an earlier report by Amnesty International on rights abuses in the fight against Boko Haram in the Far North region, the rights organisation still reiterated it in the February 22, 2017 report- “In Cameroon, more than 1,000 people – many arrested arbitrarily – were held in horrific conditions and dozens died from torture, or disease and malnutrition. In cases where detainees suspected of supporting Boko Haram were brought to trial, they faced unfair trials in military courts in which the death sentences were most likely.

Boko Haram suspects tortured to death

Amnesty International report says security forces in Cameroon continued to “arbitrarily arrest individuals accused of supporting Boko Haram, often with little or no evidence, and detained them in inhumane, often life threatening conditions. Hundreds of suspects were held in unofficial detention centres, such as military bases or premises belonging to the national intelligence agencies, without access to a lawyer or their families. The security forces continued to use “cordon and search” operations, leading to mass arrests.”

Going by the report, dozens of men, women and children accused of supporting Boko Haram were tortured by members of BIR in Salak, Maroua, and by officers of the General Directorate of External Research (DGRE) in Yaoundé. “Some of them died as a result of torture; others disappeared.” Amnesty International said.

Four killed in Anglophone uprising

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The rights group reported that activists and journalists, continued to be intimidated, harassed and threatened. Government is also said to have continued abusing rights to expression and assembly.

“In late October, lawyers, students and teachers from the Anglophone regions of Cameroon went on strike, in opposition to what they viewed as the marginalization of the Anglophone minority. Protesting erupted in several cities in the southwest and northwest of the country, including Bamenda, Kumba and Buea.

Cameroon’s security forces arbitrarily arrested protesters and used excessive force to disperse them. In one example, on 8 December, the use of live bullets by security forces led to the deaths of between two and four people during a protest in the northwestern city of Bamenda;”the report read in part.

It also stated that Kah Walla, President of the Cameroon People’s Party, was victim of several arbitrary arrests and in one of the cases charged of “insurrection and rebellion against the State”, for peacefully protesting against the government.

Unjust trials in military courts

Several cases of unfair trails before military courts are cited in the report. These include the trial of Ahmed Abba, RFI correspondent, who was arrested in Maroua in July 2015, and charged with complicity with and non-denunciation of religious persecution along the smuggling routes to and through Libya. His trial in Yaounde, was marred by irregularities, including witnesses not being called to testify, and documents not being shared with defence lawyers. The trial of three journalists – Rodrigue Tongué, Felix Ebole Bola and Baba Wamé in the same court were marred by substantive and procedural irregularities, including the refusal by the judges to allow witnesses to testify, according to the AI report.

The trial of Fomusoh Ivo Feh, arrested in December 2014 in Limbe for forwarding a sarcastic text message about Boko Haram, and sentenced to 10 years in prison by same Yaoundé Military Court on 2 November for “non-denunciation of a terrorist act” was also criticised by AI. He was convicted on the basis of limited and unverifiable evidence and some of the irregularities cited in the report include lack of an interpreter.

Permanently chained prisoners

Government has not been able to improve on prison conditions. Besides subjecting suspects to chronic overcrowding, inadequate food, limited medical care, and deplorable hygiene and sanitation, government goes as far as keeping certain suspects permanently chained- this was the case of Boko Haram alleged supporters. Amnesty International considered the construction of 12 new cells for the prison in Maroua insufficient to resolve the crisis.

An amended version of the Penal Code, passed in July 2016, provided that tenants owing more than two months’ rent could be sentenced to up to three years in prison.  Amnesty International noted that about a third of households in Cameroon lived in rented accommodation and almost half of the country’s population live below the poverty line.

A “deeply flawed anti-terrorism” law passed in December 2014, is also used to try people accused of supporting Boko Haram. The trials which the rights organisation say are unfair always result in death penalty. The organisation however says none of the condemned persons were executed during the year.

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