BHRC trial observation reports multiple violations of fair trial rights by Cameroon
new trial observation report by the Bar Human Rights Committee has revealed numerous violations of international law and fair trial protections during Cameroon’s ongoing prosecution of 28 people.
BHRC trial observer Jodie Blackstock attended the hearings of Felix Agbor-Balla, Fontem Neba and Mancho Bibixy in April 2017. Mr Agbor-Balla is a barrister, Mr Neba an academic and Mr Bibixy a journalist; all three appear to have been arrested in connection with peaceful protests against the imposition of French-speaking judges and the French civil law system on Cameroon’s English-speaking minority, in areas governed by Anglophone common law.
This case had previously been joined with 25 other accused, including teachers and other members of the public who attended the protests. Charges against these additional accused remain unknown. Messrs. Agbor-Balla, Neba and Bibixy face charges related to terrorism and crimes against the state, several of which carry the death penalty.
In its report, BHRC identifies a number of serious breaches of the defendants’ fundamental rights to due process and a fair trial, including:
The use of military tribunals (despite the charges listed not falling under military law), violating the right to an independent and impartial trial.
Broadly-defined and imprecise charges, which do not specify which actions by the accused are considered to constitute criminal offences.
A lack of information given to the accused as to the nature of the allegations against them, or access to prosecution case files, in clear breach of their fair trial rights
Allegations by several of the 25 additional accused that they have been mistreated by police while in custody, and denied access to legal assistance.
Ongoing pre-trial detention since January 2017, with no decision made by the court on its lawfulness or the possibility of bail.
BHRC Chairperson Kirsty Brimelow QC said:
“Charging peaceful protestors breaches basic tenets of Cameroon’s international law obligations as well as its Constitution. If it transpires that laws designed for terrorist atrocities have been used to detain peaceful protestors, it is an abuse of those laws, and of the right to peaceful protest. Denying detainees meaningful access to lawyers, or to the purported evidence supporting allegations against them, also breaches their legal rights and protections. BHRC calls upon the State Prosecutor to urgently review the charges in these cases: due process and fair trial rights must be applied. Whilst charges are reviewed, all detainees should be released from custody or reasons for their detention examined and argued in full bail hearings.”
Cameroon is a bi-lingual and bi-jural country as a consequence of its colonial past. In reality, the Anglophone system is confined to two regions out of ten in the North West and South West of Cameroon. Concerns have increasingly been expressed by the public and professionals in these regions, in particular, barristers, teachers and journalists that the Anglophone system and English language is receding due to the increasing appointment of public officials in local administration that speak only French and are not familiar with the Anglophone legal or educational systems.
In November 2016 barristers and teachers went on strike and held protest marches in cities in the Anglophone regions, but were met with excessive force by law enforcement officers.
The establishment of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium was intended to speak as a collective public advocacy group for the interests of people in the Anglophone regions. Talks were held with Government and the National Assembly in December and January.
However, on 17th January, the Government banned the organisation, disconnected the internet to the Anglophone regions and Mr Agbor-Balla and Fontem Aforteka’a Neba (both leaders in the Consortium) were arrested. Other barristers went into hiding in fear of arrest. Multiple people were arrested, including journalist Mancho Bibixy and 25 other teachers and members of the public that stand trial in this same case.