Military forced to admit that journalist Samuel Wazizi died in custody, 10 months after his death

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Outcry over journalist's death in detention and its cover-up by authorities

Under pressure from civil society groups following a news story by private television station Équinoxe Télévision, the Cameroonian military admitted in a statement read on the radio on 5th June 2020 that journalist Samuel Abuwe Ajieka, also known as Samuel Wazizi, had died on 17th August 2019 while he was in custody. Wazizi was arrested on 2nd August 2019, was never presented before a court, nor were his relatives or his lawyer informed of his whereabouts during the ten months since his arrest. The circumstances of Wazizi's death are unclear and disputed. According to the official version by the authorities, the journalist died on 17th August 2019 in a military hospital after suffering from 'severe sepsis', and authorities claim his family was in contact with him while in hospital and was informed of his death. Civil society organisations dispute this version, saying authorities have been trying to cover up the facts. Reporters without Borders (RSF) said that they had seen photos of Wazizi reportedly taken on 13th August 2020 showing injuries to his foot, hand and shoulder, while his family confirmed that neither they nor Wazizi's lawyer had had any contact with the journalist since 7th August 2019, when Wazizi was taken by military officers from the Muea police station in Buea. 

As reported previously on the Monitor, police officers arrested news anchor for private music channel Chillen Muzik and Television (CMTV)  Samuel Wazizi on 2nd August 2019 in Buea in South West Region and handed him over to the military on 7th August. The journalist, also known as 'Halla Ya Matta' was accused of 'collaborating with separatists' and 'spreading separatist information'.

Civil society organisations and press organisations have called for an impartial, independent investigation into the circumstances of Wazizi's death, including allegations of torture. In a statement of 9th June 2020, undersigned by ten civil society organisations, Cyrille Bechon of the human rights organisation Nouveaux Droits de l'Homme said: 

"It took the government 10 months after Wazizi was forcibly disappeared to acknowledge he died in custody, and authorities did so only following significant national and international pressure. Cameroonian authorities were responsible for his life and safety while in detention and must provide a full accounting as to the circumstances of his detention and death."

On 9th June 2020, dozens of journalists gathered in front of the Ministry of Communication in Douala, in a protest organised by Syndicat national des journalistes du Cameroun (SNJC; National Trade Union of Journalists in Cameroon), to demand an investigation into the death of Wazizi under the banner #Justice for Wazizi. Protests by journalists reportedly took place in other cities, such as Yaoundé and Bamenda.

Following the announcement of Samuel Wazizi's death, human rights organisation Réseau des défenseurs des droits humains en Afrique centrale (Redhac; Network of Human Rights Defenders in Central Africa) launched a campaign against the impunity for human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances and arbitrary detentions, perpetrated by security forces. Maximilienne Ngo Mbe of Redhac said to Radio France Internationale (RFI) that investigations should look beyond those who executed the acts to those in command, and that associations specialised in those matters should be involved in these investigations.

Detention of journalists

On 15th May 2020, four armed men arrested freelance journalist Kingsley Fumunyuy Njoka at his home in Douala, said Reporters without Borders (RSF). He was held incommunicado for three weeks before lawyers could visit him. On 12th June 2020, Fumunyuy Njoka was officially accused of secessionism and collusion with an armed group, and was placed in provisional detention for a period of six months. The arrest is reportedly linked to the journalist's criticism of the government in relation to its handling of the Anglophone conflict. 

On 2nd April 2020, police detained journalist and cameraman Éric Kouatchou in Yaoundé while he was in mandatory COVID-19 quarantine after flying from France, where he resides. He was released on 13th April 2020. Although police have not given official reasons for the cameraman's detention, news outlet Jeune Afrique says that the detention might be related to a video he made, as cameraman for the chain CNews, capturing French president Emmanuel Macron speaking with Cameroonian opposition activist Abdoulaye Thiam, also known as 'Calibri Calibro', in which Macron reportedly promised the latter 'to put pressure' on Cameroonian president Paul Biya. Kouatchou was authorised to follow the French president's visit to the Agricultural Show in Paris on 22nd February 2020.

Detention of journalist Amadou Vamoulké arbitrary says UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention

In its 87th session (27th April - 1st May 2020), the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued its opinion on the detention of journalist Amadou Vamoulké, who was arrested in July 2016 and has been incarcerated ever since. The Working Group has asked the Cameroonian authorities to release Valmouké 'immediately and ensure that he receives the necessary medical treatment as much as possible, taking into account the limited possibilities of national and international travel during the COVID-19 pandemic'. The Working Group also said that 'the violations of the right to due process are of such gravity that they confer an arbitrary character on Mr. Vamoulké’s detention'.

Former head of the state-owned Cameroon Radio and Television (CRTV) Amadou Vamoulké was detained in July 2016 on accusations of mismanagement of public funds to the benefit of CRTV. Press freedom organisation Reporters without Borders (RSF), who petitioned the UN on the case, said that the journalist has been 'subjected to a drawn-out trial in which more than 30 hearings have so far been held without any evidence being produced to support the charges.' In addition, RSF said that 70-year old Vamoulké had been ill and in need of further medical examination. He was also denied provisional release when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived within the prison in Yaoundé where he is being held. Arnaud Froger of RSF said:

The UN’s conclusions on the arbitrary character of this leading African journalist’s detention concur with RSF’s assessment and add a new voice to the many that are already calling for his release. We urge the Cameroonian authorities to hear these calls. Aside from the many flaws in the judicial proceedings, which have been observed and established, this journalist is elderly and sick, and is living in a prison hit by the coronavirus epidemic. The humanitarian dimension of the case should prevail in order to prevent the worst from happening.”

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Volunteers of opposition COVID-19 solidarity fundraising initiative arrested

On 11th May 2020, six volunteers of the solidarity fundraising initiative Survie-Cameroon - Survival Initiative (SCSI), set up by opposition leader Maurice Kamto of the political party Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the country, were arrested in Moloko, in Yaoundé, while they were handing out masks and hand sanitisers to citizens, and accused of 'rebellion'. According to news reports, three other volunteers were arrested on 23rd May 2020 in the South Region, on accusations of 'demonstration without authorisation' and 'distribution of non-compliant gels and mufflers (masks)'. The three were released a few days later, on 25th May. Other incidents of volunteers of the initiative have been reported, including the dispersal or interruption of volunteers by police officers. 

According to Human Rights Watch, the Minister of Territorial Administration, Paul Atanga Nji ordered the closure of the fund's bank account and the freezing of its money on 9th April 2020. Additionally, the Minister called for an investigation into the initiative and told communications companies to close any mobile accounts that were opened in relation to SCSI. In May 2020, the government rejected the donation from SCSI of 16,000 protective and surgical masks and 950 screening tests for COVID-19. 

Minister accuses NGOs and media of destabilising the country

During a press conference on 9th March 2020, Cameroon's Minister of Territorial Administration, Paul Atanga Nji accused several NGOs of a conspiracy against Cameroon and the armed forces of the country and destabilising the country. He said that many NGOs 'under the orders of the enemy' regularly 'convey erroneous information on the management of Government of the crisis' and that 'these NGOs received five billion CFA francs from occult networks to destabilise Cameroon'. The Minister reportedly cited Réseau des défenseurs des droits humains en Afrique centrale (REDHAC), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group. Media was also not spared, as four media outlets, including Le Jour, were accused of 'collusion' with these NGOs as 'they relay false reports against the defence and security forces disseminated by these NGOs under orders'.

The attack came after human rights organisations had accused the government forces and armed ethnic Fulani of the killing of at least 21 civilians, including 13 children, in Ngarbuh, in North West region, on 14th February 2020. Authorities initially denied involvement of the armed forces but ordered a joint commission of inquiry under international pressure. On 22nd April 2020, the Commission of Inquiry made its findings public, admitting that armed security forces and 'local vigilance groups' killed five separatists while on a reconnaissance mission, killing 13 civilians in the process. The security forces then tried to cover up these acts by burning homes and submitting a false report. Lewis Mudge of Human Rights Watch said:

"The commission’s findings into the Ngarbuh massacre, while flawed, are an important first step toward justice for these serious crimes. But this report should not be a stand-alone action. A more in-depth investigation is needed to establish a clear timeline of events and to identify all those responsible, including anyone further up the chain of command, for the purposes of prosecuting them.”

Civil society activist and lecturer dismissed following political interference

On 6th May 2020, the University of Buea reportedly dismissed human rights lawyer and activist Felix Agbor Nkongho, who was a lecturer in its Faculty of Law and Political Sciences. The dismissal reportedly followed a letter from the Minister of Education, Jacques Fame Ndongo to the vice-chancellor of the University of Buea urging the university to take measures against Agbor Nkongho for breaching the code of conduct and ethics of the higher education institution. According to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) the complaint related to a written exam question in which students were asked to critically engage with and discuss the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon, and the organisation considers the dismissal a retaliation for his human rights work.

Felix Agbor Nkongho is a human rights lawyer and is founder of the CSO Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA). He was previously arrested on 17th January 2017 and charged with 'terrorism' in relation to the civil society protests and civil disobedience campaigns initially led by lawyers and teachers' unions over the marginalisation of citizens in the two Anglophone regions of Cameroon, which was violently cracked down on by authorities. He was released on 31st August 2020.

Attacks on humanitarian workers in Anglophone regions

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has highlighted the dismal and precarious situation of humanitarian aid workers in the Anglophone regions, with recent new attacks. On 30th May 2020, a humanitarian worker whose name was withheld, was abducted by armed separatists in North West region, accused of being a spy, tied to a tree and beaten before being released the following day, said HRW. The same day, seven staff members of the faith-based non-profit Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services were abducted in the North West region, and released two days later.

The organisation said that these attacks against aid workers are not new and that both armed separatists and government armed forces bear responsibility. HRW stated in their dispatch:

"Aid workers have been victims of unlawful killings, abductions, harassment, extortion, and other abuses as supplies and property have been looted and destroyed. Humanitarian access has been severely hindered by the violence, as well as by deliberate actions carried out by the separatists and government forces and authorities."