A witch-hunt in Cameroon

How the fight against Boko Haram to restore peace is threatening Cameroon's citizens and human rights defenders.
Photo: SarahTz / CC BY 2.0/ Source: Flickr

In 2015, François Delattre, President of the Security Council of the United Nations, qualified Boko Haram as a threat to international peace and security.  In 2017, this is still the case.

A threat to international peace

The terrorist organization, originating from Nigeria, still threatens international peace and jeopardizes the fragile balance in sub-Saharan Africa. Over the past few years, Boko Haram has been responsible for the death of 20,000 people and displacement of 2.7 million individuals.

On August 2017, suspected Boko Haram extremists entered two villages in Cameroon, bordering Nigeria,  and killed at least 16 people before burning the two villages.

Since 2014, the population of the northern region of Cameroon has experienced several terrorist attacks similar to the one that occurred in August. In order to respond to the terrorist threat, Cameroon has hardened its military force and  justice system. This policy has had a direct impact on human rights, not a positive o. Instead, in the name of security and “peace”, the Cameroonian government has sacrificed the human rights of its citizens.  

Cameroon’s Anti-Terrorism Law

In 2014, Cameroon enacted a new legislation aimed at repressing any terrorist act. This law, however, infringes most of the human rights protected by the Cameroonian Constitution and international Human Rights treaties.

The definition of terrorism given by the Cameronian legislator is extremely broad thus gives a lot of leeway to authorities regarding its enforcement.

Pursuant to the Anti-Terrorism law, terrorist acts encompass any act threatening people’s life or the national security, but not only. Financing terrorist acts, laundering money, recruiting and training fall also within the scope of the Law.

For the sake of completeness, Cameroonian authorities have given discretionary power to its enforcement forces. The direct result of this vague and overbroad definition is an increase in arbitrary arrest recorded by non-governmental organizations.

Arbitrary arrests and sentences

Since the enactment of the law, Cameroonian authorities have arrested more than 1,000 people for supporting the terrorist organization. Many of them are deprived of probable cause or even reasonable suspicion. Amnesty International reported the case of four women sentenced to death for terrorism where the only evidence incriminating them was a statement made by a local vigilante committee about their travel to Nigeria.

In 2016, three students were sentenced to 10 years in prison because of a joke they made about Boko Haram. While he was investigating Boko Haram conflict in the north of the country, Ahmed Abba, a journalist of the well-established radio Radio France Internationale, suffered the same fate. The military tribunal sentenced the journalist to a 10-year imprisonment sentence for “non-denunciation of terrorism” and “laundering the proceeds of terrorist acts”.

Such conception of what constitutes terrorism could lead to dreadful consequences if it has not already. If students and journalists can be charged with aiding and abetting terrorist organizations, human rights defenders fear that doctors or even families could be sentenced to jail for providing care or food to the terrorists.

Young Lawyers pay the price

In addition to those arbitrary detentions, most suspects do not benefit from their right to a fair trial. Pursuant to Section 417 of the Criminal Procedure Code, lawyers are available for indigent defendants. Nevertheless, legal aid is rarely available for the prisoners according to the Cameroonian lawyers. Indeed, according to Cameroonian lawyers, the amount provided by the government does not cover the entire judicial proceeding. Because of this, inexperienced lawyers are most of the time working on those cases. Conflict of interest is common: a lawyer will have to represent two defendants involved in the same case. Some prisoners do not even have access to a lawyer.

In a recent report, Amnesty International reported that all individuals detained incommunicado did not have the ability to contact their family or a lawyer.  

In July 2016, Amnesty International reported 29 cases of people being tortured with sticks, whips and/or machetes while being detained in military bases. Among those 29 cases, 6 individual died subsequently because of the cruel treatment inflected. Even without being tortured, prisoners held in “regular” prisons are facing inhumane conditions of detention.

In a horrific footage released by France 24, inmates exposed their daily living conditions. The video shows overcrowded cells with dozens of inmates sleeping on the floor. Only one shower and three toilets are available for 1,300 detainees. With no running water and a floor littered with trash and food remains, inmates are living in sanitary conditions that violate the Human Rights Convention.  

The recent increase of the prison population due to this terrorist witch-hunt has worsened the situation. Whereas no death sentences were recorded in 2013 and 2014, the trend changed dramatically with the anti-terrorism law. In 2016, 160 individuals were sentenced to death by military courts, including minors. Despite the lack of due process, most of them were sentenced to death for terrorism.

The precarious condition of Human Rights Defenders

The current situation is precarious not only for prisoners. Human rights defenders and lawyers who try to bring awareness about those violations are often victims of intimidation by Cameroonian authorities.

The anti-terrorist legislation has also given the government the perfect excuse to crush civil society’s work. In January 2017, several Civil Society leaders were arrested during a peaceful protest against linguistic minorities. Both were charged on the ground of secession and civil war. Both of these indictments are punishable by death.  Lawyers and activists have frequently reported being harassed, intimidated and summoned by government authorities. Some of them, fearing for their lives, had to leave their house.

Cameroonian lawyers have also denounced the absence of attorney-client privilege in terrorist cases. Government officials usually attend attorney-client meetings depriving those individuals of the right to an effective defence.

To restore peace, the Cameroonian government chose a merciless battle against Boko Haram. In this case, however, re-establishing peace comes with a price. The human rights situation in Cameroon has never been so precarious, but the issue remains largely unknown to the general public.

By neglecting its citizen’s rights to a fair trial, the Cameroonian government has let Boko Haram’s ideals prevail.

Human RightsOpinion
Thalia Gerzso

Thalia Gerzso is a Cornell Law graduate and human rights advocate. She gained experience in the human rights field through the Cornell International Human Rights Clinic where she worked on various projects. She notably worked on the defense of death row prisoners in Malawi and in the United States. She also advocated for the right to self-determination of Western Sahara before the Human Rights Committee. Former Research Assistant at the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, Thalia currently works at the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Her research lies in the area of death penalty issues in subsaharan Africa, but also in international humanitarian law.
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