February 12, 2021 Blog

Cameroon: Ongoing Due Process Violations in Cases of Journalists Reporting on the Anglophone Crisis

By: Mooya Nyaundi, Senior Staff Attorney for Sub-Saharan Africa

This analysis was prepared by staff of the American Bar Association, Center for Human Rights and reflects their views. It has not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association and therefore should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association as a whole. Further, nothing in this analysis should be considered as legal advice in a specific case.

Cameroonian Journalist, Wawa Jackson Nfor

Cameroonian Journalist, Wawa Jackson Nfor

Photo Credit: Derrick Bakah

For nearly three years, Cameroonian journalist, Wawa Jackson Nfor has been detained at the Nkambe Principal Prison in Northwest Cameroon. Nfor is charged under Cameroon’s notorious anti-terrorism law and faces a maximum penalty of life imprisonment if found guilty. On December 20, 2020, his trial finally commenced before the High Court of Donga Mantung Judicial Division. Prior to this, his case had been postponed at least 20 times due to a combination of delays by the court and prosecution. In addition to the lengthy pretrial detention, the proceedings against him to date have been characterized by significant due process violations, including reports that he was arrested without a warrant, subjected to physical abuse while in detention, and interrogated in the absence of a lawyer.

Nfor is one of several journalists who has been  jailed by the Cameroon government, seemingly in retaliation for reporting on the Anglophone Crisis in the Northwest and Southwest regions, where government and separatist forces are accused of serious human rights violations, including the killing of thousands of civilians. In what seems to be a deliberate effort to prevent journalists from documenting the humanitarian crisis in these regions and the extent of the Cameroon government’s liability for human rights violations, the government has arrested and detained journalists, denying them their due process rights and holding them in prolonged pre-trial detention.  

On May 15, 2018, the national gendarmes in Nkambe—the capital city of Donga-Mantung in the English-speaking northwest region—arrested Nfor without a warrant. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ investigation into the case, following Nfor’s arrest, he was detained at the Nkambe gendarmerie, in a tiny cell without a bed, chair, toilet, or any ventilation. It is further reported that he was held in incommunicado detention for three days, during which time he was beaten by guards, denied food and visitors, and interrogated in the absence of legal representation. During the interrogations, he was accused of publishing unfavorable news about the Nkambe Central District’s administration. Nfor was eventually informed he faced charges of publishing secessionist information and threatening the life of Ngala Gerard—a prominent local ruling-party politician and businessman.

On May 18, 2018, Nfor first appeared before a court of law. His case was postponed for further investigation. On June 21, 2018, he again appeared in court. At that time, the prosecutor dropped the charge of threatening Ngala and the court referred the case to trial before the High Court in Njambe. Since Nfor’s trial began in June 2018, his case has been repeatedly adjourned—primarily because the prosecution was not prepared to proceed. On at least one occasion, Nfor’s defense lawyer asked for the case to be thrown out for failure to prosecute or at the very least for his client to be released on bail, but this application was dismissed. Nfor’s lawyer also applied for the court to disregard his client’s confession on the grounds that it was obtained and signed under duress and in the absence of a lawyer. Under international law, statements made under questionable circumstances including absence of a lawyer, must be carefully evaluated for their reliability. Instead of acting on this motion, the initial judge repeatedly postponed ruling on this matter in at least four sittings and then, in June 2019, proceeded to go on a several-month vacation without ruling on the application. The case was not scheduled for a hearing again until a new judge was eventually appointed in August 2020, which triggered a de novo start of the case. The case did not, however immediately start and instead continued to be postponed, again largely due to requests by the prosecution and the non-appearance of the prosecution witnesses.

On December 11, 2020 the trial finally commenced. On February 3, 2020 almost three years after Nfor’s arrest, the court heard closing arguments and his trial concluded. Nfor’s detention without trial for close to three years—while his case has been repeatedly postponed without reasonable justification—is a grave miscarriage of justice. The right to a fair trial, which includes the right to a speedy trial is guaranteed under Cameroon’s own constitution, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights  and several international treaties, of which Cameroon is a party. It is an essential right that upholds the presumption of innocence for all accused persons, ensuring that an innocent person does not serve a significant amount of time in jail without a conviction. A speedy trial also helps ensure the integrity of evidence. Moreover, numerous studies have shown that prolonged detention heightens the risk of torture  and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Despite multiple postponements to allow the prosecution to present witnesses in court against Nfor, in the end, the prosecution never presented a witness. Instead, the State relied on written statements from the investigating police officers, which deprived Nfor’s defense lawyer the opportunity to adequately cross-examine this evidence. Article 14(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that, in the determination of any criminal charge, the accused is entitled as a minimum guarantee “[t]o examine, or have examined, the witnesses against him and to obtain the attendance and examination of witnesses on his behalf under the same conditions as witnesses against him”. This crucial process presents an opportunity for the credibility and weight of witness evidence to be properly assessed. In many jurisdictions only in very limited circumstances do the rules of evidence permit written statements in the absence of in-person witness testimony.

The prosecution also relied on Nfor’s alleged “confession”, which was obtained during the initial investigation and without the presence of lawyer. The European Court on Human Rights has specifically held that“[t]he rights of the defence will in principle be irretrievably prejudiced when incriminating statements made during police interrogation without access to a lawyer are used for conviction”.

The numerous due process violations, including but not limited to Nfor’s arrest without a warrant;  his initial incommunicado detention; reports of his torture while in custody and the subsequent statement he made under duress; as well as his lack of access to counsel during interrogations,  lend credibility to claims that his arrest, detention, and criminal charges were never based on a legitimate case against him and that he has, instead, been imprisoned in retaliation for his legitimate investigative work. For this reason, the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights (Center) through its Justice Defenders Program, facilitated the engagement of a pro bono United Kingdom lawyer, Oliver Windridge, who partnered with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), to submit a petition before the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) on behalf of Wawa Jackson Nfor. The decision of the Working Group is currently pending.

As severe as the violations in Nfor’s case are, they are not unique. Human rights organizations have documented numerous other Cameroonian journalists that have been imprisoned for reporting on the Anglophone Crisis. Thomas Awah—a correspondent for the privately owned Afrik 2 Radio—was arrested in January 2017 while seeking to interview residents in the Anglophone region. For over a year, he was held in pretrial detention with no knowledge of the charges against him. In May 2018, he was eventually tried before a military tribunal in a one-day trial where he was convicted of several charges, including terrorism and spreading fake news through electronic means. He is currently serving an 11-year sentence.

In 2016, Tsi Conrad—a freelance journalist, writer, and filmmaker—was reportedly arrested at gun point while covering a demonstration by the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM). According to his colleagues, Tsi had provided still images and video footage of rallies and protests to other journalists, including pro-separatist news websites. Tsi was held in incommunicado detention for two weeks, where he was reportedly tortured and threatened into signing a confession. Two years later, in May 2018, he was tried and convicted, together with Thomas and another journalist, Mancho Bibixy. Tsi was sentenced to 15-years imprisonment under several anti-state charges, including terrorism. Similar to the cases of Nfor, the case against Tsi, Thomas and Mancho was apparently fraught with numerous due process violations, including incommunicado detention; failure to present the journalists before a court within 48 hours; failure to promptly inform them of the charges against them; and prolonged pre-trial detention in violation of the right to a speedy trial.

Recently, the Center released a report in which its staff attorneys found grave due process violations in the case of journalist Samuel Abuwe, who was accused of having links with separatist fighters. In Abuwe’s case, for over 10 months, a habeas corpus petition, to compel the State security officials to produce Abuwe before a court of law after he was disappeared into State custody, was repeatedly postponed by the court, despite the gravity of the case. Eventually, the government revealed that Abuwe had died shortly after being taken into police custody under suspicious circumstances. To date, despite strong calls from numerous organizations, including the American Bar Association, for a prompt and impartial investigation into Abuwe’s death, the Cameroonian government has failed to take any action.

In the above cases of arrested journalists, a key pattern has been the failure of the Cameroon government to ensure fundamental due process rights. This has given rise to questions around the legitimacy and integrity of the prosecutions, lending credence to accusations that Cameroon’s anti-terror law has been weaponized against independent voices and government critics. Instead of furthering legitimate efforts to investigate, prevent, and hold perpetrators accountable for terrorist acts, the law appears to be a veneer for classic authoritarian displays of power. Given the very real humanitarian crisis in Cameroon, this is inexcusable. The conflict in the region has killed over three thousand people and displaced nearly a million more. Journalists and the media have a crucial part to play, particularly given the situation of conflict by promoting equality, combating intolerance, and keeping society informed. Targeting and arbitrarily detaining journalists from the region only serves to expand the gulf between the Anglophone region and the central government and is wholly inconsistent with efforts to address the Anglophone Crisis.

On February 16, 2021, a ruling in the criminal case against Nfor is expected from the High Court of Donga Mantung in Nkambe – Northwest Cameroon. It is unjust that Nfor has spent close to three years in detention, effectively serving a sentence in the absence of a conviction, due to the repeated postponements of his trial. His case from the very onset has been marred by several due process violations, falling short of recognized international human rights standards for a fair trial. The American Bar Association, Center for Human Rights, continues to closely monitor the case of Wawa Jackson Nfor to ensure that the anticipated verdict in his case, adheres to regional and international human rights law standards, that an accused person must be acquitted in the absence of proof beyond a reasonable doubt of guilt. The Center also continues to monitor the criminal cases of human rights defenders and journalists arrested and detained for reporting on the humanitarian crisis in the Anglophone region, and urges the Cameroon government to release all those arbitrarily detained and to afford all arrested persons their full due process rights in accordance with regional and international law.