By Tajudeen Suleiman
Amnesty International, the global human rights body, has accused authorities in Cameroon of violating human rights and denying citizens justice in the fight against the Boko Haram insurgency.
This accusation is contained in its latest report on human rights and justice in Cameroon, which the organisation says has been forwarded to the government in Yaoundé.
The report alleges that the human rights violations are significant in scale and that hundreds have been arbitrarily arrested on suspicion of being Boko Haram and held without access to lawyers, with many of them dying in custody.
“In seeking to protect civilians from brutal attacks that Boko Haram militants have launched in the Far North region of the country, Cameroon’s authorities and security forces have committed human rights violations on a significant scale. They have arbitrarily arrested hundreds of individuals accused of supporting Boko Haram, often with little or no evidence, and detained them in inhumane, often life-threatening conditions,
“Many of the detainees have been held in unofficial detention centres, with no access to a lawyer or their families, and often subjected to torture. Some have died in custody as a result of torture; others have been subjected to enforced disappearance, and their fate remains unknown to date. In cases when authorities bring these detainees to trial, their rights are routinely denied, and the use of anti-terrorist legislation and military courts leaves them with virtually no procedural guarantees,
“More than 100 people, including women, have been sentenced to death since July 2015 in deeply unfair trials, often based on little evidence. The context for these violations a significant growth in brutal attacks on civilians by Boko Haram in the Far North region of Cameroon throughout 2015 and into early 2016. Amnesty International has extensively documented crimes under international law, including international humanitarian law, committed by the armed group throughout this period.
“In response, the Cameroonian authorities have deployed thousands of security forces aiming to prevent such attacks and, in December 2014, the government passed a new anti-terrorism law. Between July 2015 and July 2016 Boko Haram conducted at least 200 attacks, including 46 suicide bombings, in the Far North region of Cameroon, killing over 500 civilians. 67 members of the security forces have also been killed since 2014. In over half of these suicide attacks, Boko Haram used girls to carry and detonate the explosives.”
The report, released Thursday morning, says Boko Haram has deliberately targeted civilians through attacks on markets, mosques, churches, schools and bus stations.
Amnesty International says that the report is based on more than 200 interviews conducted in 2016 and that it has documented incidents in which more than 160 people have been arrested on accusations that they support Boko Haram, and collected detailed information on 82 individual cases.
The report also says that Amnesty International researchers have analysed satellite images of one village in which houses were burnt by security forces, observed trials at Maroua’s military court, and consulted court documents.
Top government officials in Cameroon, including the Minister of Justice, the Minister of External Relations and the Minister of Defence, as well as military judges and prosecutors, and prison authorities were interviewed.
According to human rights body, the main findings of the report were also sent in writing to the authorities on 7 May 2016, but no response was received.
It accused security forces of carrying out hundreds of arrests – there are currently more than 1,000 people accused of supporting Boko Haram in detention – usually without warrants or even explanations, and often using excessive force.
“In one example, members of the Rapid Intervention Battalion unlawfully killed at least seven unarmed civilians during an operation in the village of Bornori in November 2014, and arrested 15 men, before returning in the following weeks to burn houses.
“In another example from July 7 2015, soldiers from the regular army rounded up and assaulted approximately 70 people in Kouyapé, while in the same month a soldier shot a 19 year-old student from Koza in the leg when he could not provide a code for his telephone when stopped by an army patrol one evening.
“Security forces frequently appear to rely only on secret and unverifiable denunciations by informants or circumstantial information, such as the lack of an identity card or a recent trip to Nigeria, rather than a reasonable suspicion of the commission of a crime. For example in Kossa, in February 2015, 32 men were rounded up and arrested based on accusations that the village was providing food to Boko Haram,
“Amnesty International documented 29 cases where people were subjected to torture. For example, Radio France International (RFI) journalist Ahmed Abba was stripped and beaten while detained at the DGRE, with no access to a lawyer or his family for over three months. The Minister of Communications, Issa Bakary, publically claimed that Abba’s lack of access to a lawyer was “in conformity with the antiterrorist law“, and that “his lawyer will have access to him when his interrogation is finished.”
The report reminds the Cameroonian authorities of their obligation to take all lawful and necessary measures to protect civilians from abuses committed by Boko Haram and bring the perpetrators of these abuses to justice, but doing so “while respecting the human rights of those it seeks to protect.”
This, it states, “would be consistent with commitments made by President Paul Biya to ensure that efforts to combat Boko Haram be carried out in full respect of Cameroon’s international human rights obligations.”
The report calls on the Cameroonian authorities to, among other things, put in place procedures to ensure that people are only arrested on the basis of a reasonable suspicion of having committed a crime, and are allowed immediate access to a lawyer and to receive family visits once detained.
It also the government to end the practice of holding and interrogating people at unofficial detention sites and provide unhindered access to human rights organisations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to all detention site, as well as sites such as military bases alleged to be used for unofficial detentions.
In addition the human rights organisation advocates the establishment of a centralised register of all persons arrested and detained, accessible to family members, and identify the whereabouts of all detainees.