June 05, 2020

Cameroon: Preliminary Report on Proceedings Against Detained Journalist Samuel Ajekah Abuwe

Samuel Ajekah Abuwe, a Cameroonian journalist also known as Samuel Wazizi, has spent more than 270 days in incommunicado, pre-trial detention. Last week, the High Court of Fako, situated in Buea, finally heard submissions on the habeas corpus petition that was filed by Mr. Abuwe’s lawyer in November 2019. It also finally considered submissions in support of the American Bar Association (ABA Center for Human Rights’ request to officially observe the proceedings. Since the ABA Center for Human Rights (Center) began monitoring the proceedings, through its Justice Defenders Program, the matter had been postponed on five separate dates. A decision on the habeas corpus petition and the Center’s observer status is expected on May 7, 2020.

From the onset of the case, the Cameroonian authorities have flouted their legal obligation to afford Mr. Abuwe his due process rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (African Charter).[2] In particular, although he was arrested on August 2, 2019, Mr. Abuwe still has not been formally notified of the charges against him; he has been denied access to his lawyer as well as his family; the authorities have failed to produce him before a court of law since his arrest; and he has been denied the opportunity to apply for bail.[3]

In addition, the continued failure to produce Mr. Abuwe in court raises grave concerns over his welfare. Regional and international human rights bodies have found that prolonged incommunicado detention both  heightens the likelihood of torture and maltreatment of detainees and inflicts severe psychological suffering, which, by its very nature, constitutes a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and even torture.[4] Mr. Abuwe’s situation is further compounded by the  ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the risk of contracting the virus while detained, particularly given the severe overcrowding that has been documented in Cameroonian prisons.[5]

Mr. Abuwe works for Chillen Musik & Television (CMTV), a news outlet in Buea, the capital of the South West Region of Cameroon. As a journalist for CMTV, Mr. Abuwe hosts a program that has regularly reported on the ongoing separatist conflict in Cameroon. Since 2017, a variety of militant separatist groups have been fighting to create an independent state, Ambazonia, comprised of the English-speaking North West and South West Regions of the Republic of Cameroon. Cameroonian journalists who have investigated and reported on human rights violations committed by the government have been accused of supporting the Ambazonians and have been subjected to arrests, detention, and physical violence.[6] In particular, credible human rights organizations have noted that since the start of the conflict, the government has misused its anti-terrorism laws to target the media.[7]

Mr. Abuwe was arrested on August 2, 2019. Police officers, reportedly from the 3rd District police station in Muea, asked him to come with them to “provide information about pidgin news.”[8] On August 6, 2019, Mr. Abuwe’s lawyer went to the police station to attend to his client, but he was told that the 3rd District lacked jurisdiction over the case and that Mr. Abuwe would be transferred to the Judicial Police Division of the South West Region in Buea. The following day, Mr. Abuwe’s lawyer proceeded to the Judicial Police Division, only to learn that his client had been transferred to the 21st Motorized Infantry Battalion. Upon arriving at the military post with the intent to secure Mr. Abuwe’s release, the lawyer was prevented from entering the premises. Since August 6, 2019, the requests of Mr Abuwe’s lawyer, as well as those of his professional colleagues and his family, to see him, have been denied. He has not been seen or heard from in nine months.

Since the moment of Mr. Abuwe’s arrest, the Cameroonian authorities have egregiously failed to comply with the due process standards established by the ICCPR and African Charter. The arresting officers did not present a warrant, as required by domestic law. Instead, the only information provided to Mr. Abuwe was that his arrest related to terrorist activity, namely “collaborating with separatists” and “spreading separatist information.” To date, no formal charges have been presented against him. An accused person must be promptly informed of any charges against him to enable him to adequately challenge his detention and prepare for his defense.[9]

The authorities then failed to present Mr. Abuwe before a court of law within 48 hours, which has been established as the standard period within which a detained person must be brought before a court of law under the ICCPR and the African Charter. Individuals who have been detained must be promptly produced before a court to ensure judicial review of the legality of their arrest and to assess the reasonableness and necessity of pretrial detention.[10]

Mr. Abuwe was also denied the opportunity to apply for bail. According to Mr. Abuwe’s lawyer, he was informed that his client was not eligible to apply for bail because the allegations related to Cameroon’s anti-terrorism law. The blanket denial of bail for certain crimes is in violation of regional and international standards, which provide that as a general rule, persons awaiting trial must not be detained in custody.[11] The decision to place an accused person in pretrial detention must be based on his or her individualized circumstances, taking into account factors such as the seriousness of the offence, the evidence against the accused and whether the accused is a flight risk.[12] In denying Mr. Abuwe the right to apply for bail, the court failed to act in accordance with the presumption that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty and in violation of his right to be free from arbitrary detention.

On August 3, 2019, Mr. Abuwe’s lawyer filed a habeas corpus petition. He received no response for three months, until the court dismissed it on a technicality.[13] The lawyer immediately filed a second habeas corpus petition, on November 7, 2019. The hearing of this petition was repeatedly adjourned, primarily due to a failure by the court registry to serve the respondents in the matter.[14] It is important to note that when the presiding judge eventually heard the matter on the merits, on April 30, 2020, the respondents failed to attend the proceedings, despite having appeared and heard the court schedule the hearing earlier in the week.[15]

The right to a speedy trial is designed to avoid keeping persons too long in a state of uncertainty about their fate and to serve the interests of justice. By permitting such an important matter to be delayed for close to nine months, denying Mr. Abuwe the right to apply for bail, and failing to order his immediate release in the absence of any legal process to justify his detention, the court failed to fulfill its obligations to ensure that Mr. Abuwe was not arbitrarily detained and that he was afforded his fair trial rights.

In addition, the case against Mr. Abuwe and his arbitrary detention appear to be in retaliation for his critical coverage of the government’s activities in Anglophone Cameroon.[16] As noted above, the arresting officers reportedly referred to his reporting during his arrest and credible human rights organizations have documented the arrest, detention, torture and judicial harassment of journalists reporting on the Anglophone crisis.[17] Mr. Abuwe’s arrest, detention and denial of fair trial rights fall in line with a well-documented broader pattern of harassment of journalists in the country’s two Anglophone Regions—North West Region and South West Region.

To comply with Cameroon’s obligations under the ICCPR and the African Charter, the Cameroonian authorities must release Mr. Abuwe or, at the very least, immediately disclose his location and provide him with prompt access to a lawyer and his family. Furthermore, without any additional delay, Mr. Abuwe must be brought before a court of law. It is a deep injustice and a gross violation of Cameroon’s international legal obligations that he has been detained incommunicado, without formal charge, for nine months.

As mentioned briefly above, this situation is exacerbated by the confirmed and increasing presence of COVID-19 cases in Cameroon’s prisons.[18] For this reason, President Biya ordered numerous prisoners released on April 15, 2020. While this was welcomed by many people, both in  and outside Cameroon, as an indication of the government’s commitment to protect the life and health of those detained, the failure to extend this amnesty to those awaiting trial and to ensure that no one remains arbitrarily detained undermines the President’s efforts to protect public health.[19]

In addition, the decision to not extend the decree to those in pretrial detention, which primarily affects detainees from the Anglophone Regions accused of terrorism and automatically denied bail,[20] has the potential to further fuel concerns of marginalization and injustice toward Anglophone citizens. Those concerns have been recognized as primary drivers of the conflict between the central government and Anglophone separatists.[21]

Mr. Abuwe, and all other arbitrarily detained individuals who have been wrongfully incarcerated and who are now facing a serious risk to their lives, should be immediately released as a matter of urgency, justice, and humanity.

Endnotes

[1] This report was prepared by staff attorneys 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 report should be considered as legal advice in a specific case.

[2] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art. 19, opened for signature Dec. 16, 1966, 999 U.N.T.S. 171 [hereinafter ICCPR]; African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, arts. 9, opened for signature June 27, 1981, 1520 U.N.T.S. 217 [hereinafter African Charter].  Cameroon ratified the African Charter on June 20, 1989 and acceded to the ICCPR on June 28, 1984.

[3] American Bar Association (ABA) Center for Human Rights, Trial Monitors Notes for the following dates: January 17, 2020, February 4, 2020, March 3, 2020, March 24, 2020, April 28, 2020, April 30, 2020. [3] See also Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, Incommunicado Detention of Cameroon journalist Samuel Wazizi, available at https://www.chrda.org/incommunicado-detention-of-cameroonian-journalist-samuel-wazizi/.

[4] UN Commission on Human Rights, Commission on Human Rights Resolution 2003/32: Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, para. 14, U.N. Doc. No. E/CN.4/RES/2003/32 (2003)

[5] UN News, UN rights chief urges quick action by government to prevent devastating impact of covid-19 in places of detention, March 25, 2020, available at https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1060252. See also Human Rights Watch, Cameroon should protect prison population form COVID-19, March 27, 2020, available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/27/cameroon-should-protect-prison-population-covid-19#

[6] Committee to Protect Journalists, Journalists Not Terrorists: In Cameroon, anti-terror legislation is used to silence critics and suppress dissent, available at  https://cpj.org/reports/Cameroon-English-Web.pdf.

[7] Id.

[8] CMTV, CMTV Official Press Release, February 2019, available at https://www.facebook.com/CHILLENMEDIATV/photos/a.2335448923199679/2335448863199685/?type=3&theater (“Samuel Wazizi, a CMTV pidgin news anchor popularly known as " Halla Ya Matta" was taken by elements of Muea Police Station Buea on Friday 02/08/2019 at 11:00 am. They claimed that he is being invited by their Boss to get information about a certain "pidgin news". Upon his arrival at the Muea Police station, he was detained without any interrogation. The officer-in-charge refused all access to see or talk to Samuel saying it is a hierarchy matter and investigation is currently going on. The officer added that the matter shall only be open the next day by the commissioner. He is still in detention at the Muea Police station Buea and they said it is in connection to the anglophone armed conflict of which investigation is still going on. Any development on this shall be made public.”).

[9] African Charter, art. 9(2). See also ICCPR art. 14(3)(a) (stating “that an accused person should be promptly informed in detail in a language which he understands the nature and cause of the charge against him”).

[10] African Charter, art. 9(2) and ICCPR, Article 9(4). 

[11] See Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee: Argentina, para. 10, U.N. Doc. No. CCPR/CO/70/ARG (2000); see also Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee: Sri Lanka, para. 13, U.N. Doc. No. CCPR/CO/79/LKA) (2003).

[12] See Marinich v. Belarus, Communication No. 1502/2006, para. 10.4, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/99/D/1502/2006 (2010); Cedeño v. Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Communication No. 1940/2010, para. 7.10U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/106/D/1940/2010 (2012); Torobekov v. Kyrgyzstan, Communication No. 1547/2007, para. 6.3, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/103/D/1547/2007 (2011).

[13] Jounal duCameroon.com, Cameroon: Whereabouts of Cameroon journalist still unknown after court throws out bail request, November 5, 2020, available at https://www.journalducameroun.com/en/cameroon-whereabouts-of-detained-buea-journalist-still-unknown-after-court-throws-out-bail-request/

[14] ABA CHR Trial Monitor Notes, supra note 3.

[15] Id.

[16] Committee to Protect Journalists, Cameroon’s military detains pidgin news anchor Samuel Wazizi, August 13, 2019, available at https://cpj.org/2019/08/cameroons-military-detains-pidgin-news-anchor-samu.php.

[17] Committee to Protect Journalists, Journalists Not Terrorists, In Cameroon, anti-terror legislation is used to silence critics and suppress dissent (2017), available at  https://cpj.org/reports/Cameroon-English-Web.pdf.

[18] Actu Cameroon, Cameroon: MRC prisoners tested positive for coronavirus in Kondengui, Maril 11, 2020, available at https://actucameroun.com/2020/04/11/cameroun-des-prisonniers-du-mrc-testes-positifs-au-coronavirus-a-kondengui/.

[19] The Guardian Post Daily, Biya’s clemency to prisoners, national rights commission salutes decision but says move not adequate, April 21, 2020.

[20] Id.

[21] International Crisis Group, Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis at the Crossroads, August 2, 2017, available at https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/central-africa/cameroon/250-cameroons-anglophone-crisis-crossroads.