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Harsh sentences for opposition protesters; journalists and TV programme suspended

REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye via Gallo Images

Prior to the opening of the African Cup of Nations, which took place from 9th January 2022 to 6th February 2022 in Cameroon, 27 CSOs wrote an open letter to President Paul Biya, calling for the modification of laws that have been used to criminalise protest – in particular the 2014 anti-terror law – as well as for the release of more than 100 people who have been languishing in prison for over a year, and some of over five years, for protesting. Some examples of those detained include TSI Conrad, a young journalist who was arrested while covering protests in the Anglophone regions six years ago and was sentenced by a military court to 15 years in prison; and Dorgelesse Nguessan who was sentenced to five years in prison for attending a Mouvement pour le Renaissance du Cameroun-led protest over how the regional protests were organised.

Association

Executive director of human rights organisation summoned by police; HRD detained at airport

On 10th December 2021, the executive director of human rights organisation Réseau des Défenseurs des Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale (REDHAC -Network of Human Rights Defenders in Central Africa), Maximilienne Chantal Ngo Mbe, and other members of REDHAC were summoned by the Direction of Judicial Police in relation to the legal situation of REDHAC. The summons came a few days after REDHAC had submitted a notification for the meeting entitled ‘High-Level Sub-Regional Consultation for Advocacy for National Reconciliation in Cameroon’, on 16th December 2021 to administrative authorities in Yaoundé. On 14th December 2021, the sub-prefect of Yaoundé prohibited the meeting on the grounds of alleged “attempts to disturb public order and public tranquility” and “threats emanating from the new COVID-19 variant called Omicron”. Several CSOs organised a press conference on 16th December 2021 to denounce the ban on the conference. On 15th December 2021, South African HRD Corlett Letlojane, who was invited to speak during the conference, was detained after her arrival at Nsimalen International Airport and was held for 30 hours without access to a lawyer and without being charged. She was deported back to South Africa on 16th December 2021. Ngo Mbe was again summoned on 24th March 2022.

HRD receives death threats

Prominent human rights lawyer and founder of the CSO Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA), Felix Agbor Nkhongo, received multiple death threats on social media platforms and WhatsApp between 29th October and 1st November 2021 when the HRD attended a leadership retreat in Toronto, Canada to discuss collaborative actions for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon. Agbor Nkongo is a defender of rights for the English-speaking minority in Cameroon and has been advocating for a peaceful resolution to the ongoing Anglophone crisis.

The HRD has been subjected to attacks, intimidation, and reprisals for his work on several occasions. As reported previously on the Monitor, Agbor Nkhongo was dismissed from his job as lecturer at the University of Buea, following a letter by the Minister of Education urging the university to take measures against the HRD. He was 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 English-speaking regions of Cameroon. He was released on 31st August 2020.

Five activists of Stand Up Cameroon sentenced to up to 18 months in prison

On 31st December 2021, the military court of Douala sentenced four activists from Stand Up Cameroon, a movement of opposition parties and civil society organisations, to 16 months in prison and a fine of 376,000 francs CFA (585 USD) for insurrection. The four – Tehle Membou, Mira Angoung, Moussa Bello and Etienne Ntsama – were arrested in September 2020 when they were leaving a meeting of the opposition Cameroon People’s Party (CPP) in Douala and spent 15 months in preventive detention. They were released on 21st January 2022.

Nana Collins, another member of Stand Up Cameroon, was arrested on 22nd September 2020 during opposition anti-government protests and sentenced on 7th December 2021 to 18 months in prison for “insurrection, public gatherings and demonstrations”. Collins was released on 29th March 2022.

Peaceful Assembly

Several public meetings banned by authorities

A press conference organised on 23rd March 2022 by trade unions in the transport sector to explain the reasons for a strike that started on 28th March 2022 was banned by local authorities in Yaoundé, reportedly because the organisers did not notify authorities of the meeting.

The sub-prefect of Douala prohibited a training seminar on political communication, organised by the Friederich Erbert Stiftung, from taking place, reportedly on the grounds of it not having received authorisation. The seminar, organised for communication officers within opposition parties Mouvement pour le Renaissance du Cameroun (MRC) and Social Democratic Front (SDP), was supposed to take place from 16th to 18th February 2022. On 16th February 2022, the administrative authorities, accompanied by police officers, went to the hotel where the training was to take place and forced all attendees off the premises.

On 14th December 2021, local authorities in Yaoundé banned the conference entitled ‘High-Level Sub-Regional Consultation for Advocacy for National Reconciliation in Cameroon’, organised by the human rights organisation REDHAC for the 16th December 2021 on the grounds of alleged “attempts to disturb public order and public tranquility” and “threats emanating from the new COVID-19 variant called Omicron” (See also under Association).

On 24th November 2021, a public meeting organised by the opposition to present proposals to reform the electoral system at a hotel in Yaoundé was banned by local authorities. Police were deployed to the hotel, where they barred meeting participants from entering the conference room. The order for the ban reportedly mentioned possible “interference in the legislative powers and the holding of the parliamentary session”.

Dozens of opposition members and supporters receive prison sentences for participation in 2020 protest

On 27th December 2021, 47 members and supporters of opposition party Mouvement pour la Renaissance du Cameroun (MRC), including MRC’s spokesperson and treasurer, were sentenced by the military court of Yaoundé to one to seven years in prison on a range of charges, including rebellion and attempt at insurrection. All were arrested in relation to the MRC protests on 22nd September 2020 over President Biya’s announcement to hold regional elections in December 2020. The protests were banned by authorities. During the protests, security forces used excessive force and arrested, according to MRC, over 500 people.

On 24th January 2022, several human rights CSOs, including REDHAC, the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA), Nouveau Droits de l’Homme and Amnesty International, launched the campaign “Don’t Shut them up: free victims of arbitrary detention now” by calling on the authorities to release hundreds of people who were detained and sentenced, often by military courts, under the 2014 anti-terrorism law, for having exercised their rights to peaceful assembly and expression. This includes those that were arrested for having participated in peaceful protests in the Anglophone regions in 2017 and the 102 MRC supporters and members who are still detained for protesting on 22nd September 2020.

Expression

Journalists and Equinoxe programme suspended

On 1st April 2022, Cameroon’s national media regulator, the National Communication Council (CNC-NCC), announced the suspension of two journalists – Sévérin Tchounkeu, director of popular TV channel Equinoxe, and its presenter Cédric Noufele – for one month, meaning both  are barred from their professions. Equinoxe TV’s current affairs programme Droits de Réponse (The Right of Reply) was likewise suspended from airing for one month. The CNC accuses the journalists of having failed in properly lead a panel discussion on the subject of the teacher’s strike on 27th February 2022, which according to the media regulator, is “likely to lead to the amplification of a potentially explosive social demands”. CNC further accuses Tchounkeu of having made “unfounded accusations offensive to republican institutions” during a broadcast on 21st March 2022 and Noufele of having broadcast an amateur video on 17th March 2022. Arnaud Froger of Reporters without Borders (RSF) commented on the case, stating that:

“We condemn these suspensions, which have no serious grounds and clearly aim to sanction a media for its coverage of a strike that embarrasses the authorities. This is nothing less than an attack on journalism and the right to news and information, which this regulator is supposed to protect. We call on the CNC, which is not in the habit of imposing arbitrary sanctions, to review this decision.”

Public school teachers had been on strike since February 2022 to demand the payment of overdue salaries and an improvement of working conditions.

Journalist abducted, physically assaulted

On 9th March 2022, three unidentified men abducted Paul Chouta, reporter for Cameroon Web and a whistleblower, from a snack bar in Yaoundé, while he was watching a soccer match. Chouta was driven to the outskirts of the city, where he was kicked and beaten with sticks, bricks, a baton and a whip until he became unconscious. Chouta told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that “they told me that I’m stubborn and that I never learn a lesson” and “they said this time they will kill me, as I wanted to show that I was a hero”. When the journalist regained consciousness, he was stripped naked, and his wallet, identity, and bank cards had been taken. He sustained injuries and had to be taken to the hospital.

Chouta has been the target of attacks and judicial persecution in the past. As reported previously on the Monitor, he was beaten and stabbed by unidentified perpetrators in January 2019 after he interviewed the campaign manager of opposition leader Maurice Kamto. Chouta was arrested on 28th May 2019 and charged with defamation and spreading false news, and was sentenced to a prison sentence of 23 months in May 2021, after his case was postponed 27 times.

Newspaper editor acquitted after spending 16 months in prison

On 13th December 2021, the editor of the newspaper Climat Social, Emmanuel Mbombog Mbog Matip, was finally acquitted after spending 16 months in prison. The court found there was “a lack of evidence”. Matip, who is also the president of the National League for the Defence of the Rights of Disadvantaged Persons, was arrested by six armed men on 17th August 2020. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Matip was investigating two stories involving senior officials when he was arrested - one story about an alleged coup plot and another on the theft of luxury cars from Togo. Despite his acquittal on 13th December 2021, he was only released on 20th December 2021.