Cameroon is a republic dominated by a strong presidency. The country has a multiparty system of government, but the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) has remained in power since its creation in 1985. In practice, the president retains the power to control legislation. In 2011 citizens re-elected CPDM leader Paul Biya president, a position he has held since 1982, in a flawed election marked by irregularities, but observers did not believe these had a significant impact on the outcome. In April 2013 the country conducted the first Senate elections in its history that were peaceful and considered generally free and fair. In September 2013 simultaneous legislative and municipal elections were held, and most observers considered them free and fair.
Civilian authorities maintained a degree of control over security forces, including police and gendarmerie.
The most significant human rights issues included: arbitrary and unlawful killings through excessive use of force by security forces; disappearances by security forces and Boko Haram; torture and abuse by security forces including in military and unofficial detention facilities; prolonged arbitrary detentions including of suspected Boko Haram supporters and individuals in the Anglophone regions; harsh and life threatening prison conditions; violations of freedoms of expression and assembly; periodic government restrictions on access to the internet; trafficking in persons; criminalization and arrest of individuals engaged in consensual same-sex sexual conduct; and violations of workers’ rights.
Although the government took some steps to punish and prosecute officials who committed abuses in the security forces and in the public service, it did not often make public actual sanctions, and offenders often continued acting with impunity.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were several reports security force officials committed arbitrary and unlawful killings through excessive use of force in the execution of official duties. Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group reported that defense and security forces used excessive and disproportionate force to disperse demonstrations in the country’s Anglophone regions, killing at least 40 individuals between September 28 and October 2 alone. On November 17, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on the government to conduct an impartial and independent investigation into the allegations of human rights violations committed during and after the October incidents but as of December no investigations into these allegations were underway.
In the Far North region, security forces also were reported responsible for holding incommunicado, torturing, and in at least 10 cases killing suspected Boko Haram and Islamic State (ISIS)-West Africa supporters in detention facilities run by the military and intelligence services, including the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) and the General Directorate of External Research (DGRE). Civil society organizations and media sources generally blamed members of the three primary security forces–the BIR, the Motorized Infantry Battalion, and the gendarmerie–for the deaths. Per Amnesty International, no security force officials responsible for human rights violations documented in their reporting on the Far North region had been held to account as of November.
The terrorist organization Boko Haram as well as ISIS-West Africa continued killing civilians, including members of vigilance committees, and members of defense and security forces in the Far North region. According to Amnesty International, Boko Haram conducted at least 120 attacks between July 2016 and June 2017, including 23 suicide bombings, resulting in the deaths of more than 150 civilians.
There continued to be reports of arrests and disappearances of individuals by security forces, particularly in the northern and Anglophone regions. According to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), some activists arrested in the context of the crisis fueled by perceptions of marginalization in the northwest and southwest Anglophone regions could not be accounted for as of November. Family members and friends of detained persons were frequently unaware of the missing individual’s location in detention until after a month or more of attempting to locate the missing individual.
Boko Haram insurgents kidnapped civilians, including women and children, during numerous attacks in the Far North region. Some of their victims remained unaccounted for as of November.
Although the constitution and law prohibit such practices, there were reports that security force members tortured, beat, harassed, or otherwise abused citizens. According to credible NGOs, members of the BIR, DGRE, and other security officials, including police and gendarmes, tortured persons inside and outside detention facilities.
Amnesty International reported in July on the cases of 101 individuals whom security forces allegedly tortured between March 2013 and March 2017 in detention facilities run by the BIR and the DGRE. While most of the cases documented involved persons arrested in 2014 and 2015 and tortured between 2014 and 2016, Amnesty International asserted that the practice continued into 2017. It stated that torture took place at 20 sites, including four military bases, two intelligence centers, a private residence, and a school. Specific sites named in the report included the BIR bases in Salak, Kousseri, and Kolofata, in the Far North region, and the DGRE facilities in Yaounde. Amnesty International said victims of torture described at least 24 different methods used to beat, break, and humiliate them, usually with the aim of forcing confessions or gaining information but also to punish, terrify, and intimidate. Most commonly, detainees were beaten with various objects, including electric cables, machetes, and wooden sticks; forced into stress positions and suspended from poles in ways that caused extreme pain to joints and muscles; and subjected to simulated drowning. A significant number of those arrested, according to the report, believed they had been targeted in part due to their Kanuri ethnicity. As of November no known investigations into these allegations had begun.
Press reporting from November 2016 indicated police and gendarmes in Buea, Southwest region, removed students, some of whom had recently been involved in protests at the local university, from their hostels, forced them to roll over in mud, and beat them with batons. According to reports, students were crammed onto military trucks and taken to undisclosed locations, where some were held for months. Some female students were allegedly raped.
Rape and sexual abuse were reported in several instances. The International Crisis Group reported that security forces were responsible for sexual abuse during their response to unrest in the Anglophone regions in September and October. International humanitarian organizations reported that members of the security forces stopped female refugees who travelled without national identity cards and sexually exploited them in exchange for letting the women pass through security checkpoints.
The United Nations reported that as of October it had received four allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against Cameroonian peacekeepers. One allegation of an exploitative relationship, one allegation of transactional sex, and two allegations of the rape of a child were made against military personnel serving with the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic. As of October 26, all investigations were pending. In two cases the United Nations suspended payments to the accused personnel; in the other two, interim actions were pending the identification of the personnel involved.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions remained harsh and potentially life threatening due to gross overcrowding, inadequate food and medical care, physical abuse, and poor sanitary conditions.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding remained pervasive in most prisons, especially in major urban centers. Officials held prisoners in dilapidated, colonial-era prisons, where the number of inmates was as much as four to five times the intended capacity. Prisons generally had separate wards for men, women, and children, but authorities often held detainees in pretrial detention and convicted prisoners together. In many prisons, toilet areas were common pits with multiple holes. In some cases, women benefitted from better living conditions, including improved toilet facilities and less crowded living quarters. Authorities claimed to hold sick persons separately from the general prison population, but this was often not the case.
The central prison in Maroua, Far North region, built in the 1930s and with an intended capacity of 350, held an estimated 1,600 inmates as of June. The central prison in Garoua, North region, with an intended capacity of 500, held nearly 2,000 inmates as of June 30. The central prison in Ngaoundere, Adamawa region, was designed for 500 inmates yet hosted 1,286 detainees as of July, over half of whom had not been convicted of any crime. As of July the principal prison in Edea, Littoral region, which had an intended capacity of 100, held 402 inmates, most of whom slept on the floor. The Kondengui central prison in Yaounde held approximately 4,000 inmates as of June, but its intended capacity was 1,500. The central prison in Buea, Southwest region, built to host 300 inmates, held 1,175 inmates as of July.
Amnesty International recorded testimonies by suspected Boko Haram affiliates who were held at different times and in various detention facilities from 2014 to March 2017. Poor detention conditions included extreme overcrowding, inadequate and insufficient food and water, little or no access to sanitation, denial of medical assistance, and lack of access to fresh air or sunlight.
As in 2016, physical abuse by prison guards and prisoner-on-prisoner violence were also problems. According to media outlets and NGOs, on March 12-13, inmates of Garoua Central Prison launched a protest that developed into a mutiny. The prisoners were reportedly protesting life-threatening overcrowding. Prisoners denounced lack of potable water and other inhuman conditions. Some detainees besieged the main prison courtyard and refused to return to their cells because of excessive heat and poor ventilation. The protest allegedly became violent when security force members attempted to return the prisoners to their cells forcibly. Three inmates died, according to official sources, and more than 40 were injured.
Disease and illness were widespread. Malnutrition, tuberculosis, bronchitis, malaria, hepatitis, scabies, and numerous other untreated conditions, including infections, parasites, dehydration, and diarrhea, were rampant. The number of deaths associated with detention conditions or actions of staff members or other authorities was unknown. Observers indicated there had been 26 cases of tuberculosis in the central prison in Garoua, North region, since January. Amnesty International estimated that dozens of detainees died in both BIR and DGRE-run detention facilities between late 2013 and May 2017 because of torture and other mistreatment.
Corruption among prison personnel was reportedly widespread. Visitors were forced to bribe wardens to access inmates. Some visitors reported paying 2,000 CFA francs ($3.73)–the minimum daily wage is roughly CFA francs 570 ($1.06). Prisoners bribed wardens for special favors or treatment, including temporary freedom, cell phones, beds, and transfers to less crowded areas of the prisons. Due to inability to pay fines, some prisoners remained imprisoned after completing their sentences or receiving court orders of release.
As in the previous year, Amnesty International reported cases of persons held in unofficial detention sites, including BIR and/or DGRE-run facilities and other detention centers run by the security forces. As of mid-March the number of persons held in Salak (Maroua, Far North region) and DGRE Lac (Yaounde, Center region) was at least 20 in each facility, based on estimates by Amnesty International. Local news sources reported that authorities had released 18 presumed Boko Haram members on August 10 after holding them for more than 10 months in Salak. Some sources stated that a number of Salak prisoners had been transferred to the central prison in Maroua.
Administration: Independent authorities often investigated credible allegations of life-threatening conditions. Visitors needed formal authorization from the state counsel; without authorization, they had to bribe prison staff to communicate with inmates. In addition, visits to Boko Haram suspects were highly restricted. Some detainees were held far from their families, reducing the possibility of visits.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted international humanitarian organizations access to prisoners in official prisons. For example, the International Committee of the Red Cross had access to five prisons, including Maroua and Kousseri in the Far North region, Garoua in the North, Bertoua in the East, and Kondengui principal prison in Yaounde, Center region. Observers did not have access to prisoners held in unofficial military detention facilities. The National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms (NCHRF) and NGOs, including the Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Archdiocese, made infrequent unannounced prison visits. In July authorities denied a request by a joint delegation of foreign experts to visit the Yaounde Kondengui principal and central prisons. As of September, authorities had not approved an August 11 request by the NCHRF to visit detention facilities at the Secretariat of State for Defense (SED), DGRE, and National Surveillance Directorate.
Authorities allowed NGOs to conduct formal education and other literacy programs in prisons. At the principal prison in Edea, Littoral region, NGO Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture sponsored a Literacy and Social Reintegration Center that provided primary and lower secondary education to inmates. Human IS Right, a Buea-based civil society organization, in partnership with Operation Total Impact, continued their formal education and reformation education program in principal prisons of Buea and Kumba, Southwest region.
Improvements: An international humanitarian organization reported that health conditions, especially malnutrition, had improved in the prisons it worked in since it started collaborating more closely with government. It also stated it had agreements with some hospitals and took care of some medical bills of prisoners who required outside medical attention.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court. The law states that, except in the case of an individual discovered in the act of committing a felony or misdemeanor, the officials making the arrest shall disclose their identity and inform the person arrested of the reason. The law also provides that persons arrested on a warrant shall be brought immediately before the examining magistrate or the president of the trial court who issued the warrant, and that the accused persons shall be given reasonable access to contact their family, obtain legal advice, and arrange for their defense. On several occasions the government did not respect these provisions.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The national police, DGRE, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization, and, to a lesser extent, Presidential Guard, are responsible for internal security. The Ministry of Defense–which includes the gendarmerie, army, and the army’s military security unit–reports to an office of the Presidency, resulting in strong presidential control of security forces. The army is responsible for external security; the national police and gendarmerie have primary responsibility for law enforcement. The gendarmerie alone has responsibility in rural areas. The national police–which includes the public security force, judicial police, territorial security forces, and frontier police–report to the General Delegation of National Security (DGSN), which is under the direct authority of the Presidency.
The government took some steps to hold police accountable for abuses of power. Police remained ineffective, poorly trained, and corrupt. Impunity continued to be a problem.
Civilian authorities maintained some control over the police and gendarmerie, and the government had some mechanisms in place to investigate and punish abuse and corruption. The DGSN and gendarmerie investigated reports of abuse and forwarded cases to the courts. Lesser sanctions were handled internally. The DGSN, Ministry of Defense, and Ministry of Justice claimed members of security forces were sanctioned during the year for committing abuses, but few details were known about investigations or any subsequent accountability.
The National Gendarmerie and the army have special offices to investigate abuse. The secretary of state for defense and the minister-delegate at the Presidency are in charge of prosecuting abusers. The minister-delegate of defense refers cases involving aggravated theft, criminal complicity, murder, and other major offenses to the military courts for trial.
As of November, the Military Court had not issued a decision in the prosecution of gendarme officer Lazare Leroy Dang Mbah, who was placed on pretrial detention following his involvement in the death of Moupen Moussa in March 2016 at an SED detention facility. Mbah detained and beat Moussa for failing to produce his national identity card. In the criminal procedure, the accused pleaded guilty of the charges listed against him. In addition the trial for Colonel Charles Ze Onguene, former commander of the Far North Gendarmerie Legion, continued before the Military Court in Yaounde. Colonel Ze was charged in connection with a cordon-and-search operation carried out in the villages of Magdeme and Double, Far North region, in 2014, during which more than 200 men and boys were arbitrarily arrested and taken to the gendarmerie in Maroua. At least 25 of them died in custody the same night, according to official sources.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
The law requires police to obtain a warrant before making an arrest, except when a person is caught in the act of committing a crime, but police often did not respect this requirement. The law provides that detainees be brought promptly before a magistrate, although this often did not occur. Police may legally detain a person in connection with a common crime for up to 48 hours, renewable once. This period may, with the written approval of the state counsel, be exceptionally extended twice before charges are brought. Nevertheless, police and gendarmes reportedly often exceeded these detention periods. The law also permits detention without charge for renewable periods of 15 days by administrative authorities such as governors and civilian government officials serving in territorial command. The law provides for access to legal counsel and family members, although police frequently denied detainees access to both. The law prohibits incommunicado detention, but it occurred, especially in connection with the fight against Boko Haram. The law permits bail, allows citizens the right to appeal, and provides the right to sue for unlawful arrest, but these rights were seldom respected.
Arbitrary Arrest: Police, gendarmes, BIR officials, and government authorities reportedly continued to arrest and detain persons arbitrarily, often holding them for prolonged periods without charge or trial and at times incommunicado. “Friday arrests,” a practice whereby individuals arrested on a Friday typically remained in detention until at least Monday unless they paid a bribe, continued albeit to a limited extent. There were several reports police or gendarmes arrested persons without warrants on circumstantial evidence alone, often following instructions from influential persons to settle personal scores. There were also reports police or gendarmes arbitrarily arrested persons during neighborhood sweeps for criminals and stolen goods or arrested persons lacking national identification cards, especially in connection with the Anglophone crisis and the fight against Boko Haram.
There were several reports the government arbitrarily arrested and detained innocent citizens. Between November 2016 and July 2017, authorities arrested dozens of Anglophone activists and bystanders for no apparent reason. Police arrested some persons without informing them of the charges. In some instances the government did not inform family members where relatives were taken. On August 31 and September 1, the government released 55 Anglophone detainees. Others, up to 69 by some estimates, remained in detention as of September 30. In some cases, journalists covering events in the Anglophone regions were arrested and held for long periods of time without being notified of the charges against them.
On January 21, unidentified individuals in civilian clothing arrested Ayah Paul Abine, advocate general at the Supreme Court. The men took Ayah from his private home to the SED, where they held him without charge. In March, Ayah’s lawyers filed an application for immediate release with the Mfoundi High Court in Yaounde. On March 16, Ayah learned the charges against him. Lawyers believed Ayah’s detention was arbitrary because it happened over a weekend, he did not learn about the charges until several weeks later, and the arrest was in violation of the provisions of the criminal procedure code applicable to magistrates. On August 30, President Biya ordered the discontinuance of proceedings pending before the Military Court against Ayah, Nkongho Felix Agbor Balla, Fontem Aforteka’a Neba, and 52 others arrested in relation to the Anglophone crisis.
Amnesty International’s July report indicated that arbitrary arrests and detentions continued on a large scale in the Far North region, and even the basic legal safeguards concerning arrest and detention were rarely respected. According to the report, individuals were arrested arbitrarily and held in secret detention for several weeks or even months.
Pretrial Detention: The law provides for a maximum of 18 months’ detention before trial, but many detainees waited for years to appear in court. No comprehensive statistics were available on pretrial detainees. As of July, the central prison in Ngaoundere, Adamawa region, hosted 1,286 inmates, 735 of whom were pretrial detainees and appellants. Some pretrial detainees had been awaiting trial for more than two years. An international humanitarian organization claimed some alleged terrorists in detention had been in prison for so long that they no longer knew the addresses of their relatives. The increase in pretrial prison populations was due in large part to mass arrests of Anglophone activists and persons accused of supporting Boko Haram; staff shortages; lengthy legal procedures; lost files; administrative and judicial bottlenecks, including procedural trial delays; and corruption.
As of November, Oben Maxwell, an activist, remained in pretrial detention in the central prison in Buea, Southwest region. He was arrested in 2014 for holding an illegal meeting. The Military Court initially handled the case, but it was then assigned to the Court of First Instance in Buea with no progress. On October 30, the Military Court in Yaounde sentenced Abdoulaye Harissou, a public notary, to three years’ imprisonment for nondenunciation. Having already served his sentence, he was released on November 12. The court sentenced another defendant in the case, Aboubakar Sidiki, president of opposition party Patriotic Movement of the Cameroonian Salvation, to 25 years. He appealed the court decision. Harissou and Sidiki were accused of hostility against the homeland and illegal possession of weapons of war and had been in pretrial detention since their arrests in August 2014.
The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary was frequently controlled by the president and majority party. Individuals reportedly accused innocent persons of crimes, often due to political motivations, or caused trial delays to solve personal disputes. Although authorities generally enforced court orders, there was at least one instance where a public entity was reluctant to respect a court decision.
The court system is subordinate to the Ministry of Justice. The constitution designates the president as “first magistrate,” thus “chief” of the judiciary, making him the legal arbiter of any sanctions against the judiciary. The constitution specifies the president is the guarantor of the legal system’s independence. He appoints all judges, with the advice of the Higher Judicial Council. During the year the president invoked the military code of justice and ordered the discontinuance of proceedings pending before military courts against Anglophone activists, including those for whom the court had previously denied bail. While judges hearing a case should be governed only by the law and their conscience as provided for by the constitution, in some matters they are subordinate to the minister of justice, or to the minister in charge of military justice. The Special Criminal Court must have approval from the minister of justice before it may drop charges against a defendant who offers to pay back the money he/she was accused of having embezzled. Despite the judiciary’s partial independence from the executive and legislative branches, the president appoints all members of the bench and legal department of the judicial branch, including the president of the Supreme Court, and may dismiss them at will.
The legal system includes statutory and customary law, and many criminal and civil cases may be tried using either. Criminal cases generally were tried in statutory courts.
Customary courts served as a primary means for settling domestic cases, including succession, inheritance, and child custody cases. Customary courts may exercise jurisdiction in a civil case only with the consent of both parties. Either party has the right to appeal an adverse decision by a customary court to the statutory courts.
Customary court convictions involving alleged witchcraft are automatically transferred to the statutory courts, which act as the courts of first instance.
Customary law is deemed valid only when it is not “repugnant to natural justice, equity, and good conscience,” but many citizens in rural areas remained unaware of their rights under civil law and were taught they must abide by customary law. Customary law partially provides for equal rights and status; men may limit women’s rights regarding inheritance and employment. Customary law as practiced in rural areas is based on the traditions of the predominant ethnic group and is adjudicated by traditional authorities of that group. Some traditional legal systems regard wives as the legal property of their husbands.
Military courts may exercise jurisdiction over civilians for offenses including: offenses committed by civilians in military establishments; offenses relating to acts of terrorism and other threats to the security of the state including piracy; unlawful acts against the safety of maritime navigation and oil platforms; offenses relating to the purchase, importation, sale, production, distribution, or possession of military effects or insignia as defined by regulations in force; cases involving civil unrest or organized armed violence; and crimes committed with firearms, including gang crimes, banditry, and highway robbery.
The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public hearing, without undue delay, in which the defendant is presumed innocent, but authorities did not always respect the law. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges, with free assistance of an interpreter. Many pretrial suspects were treated as if they were convicted. Defendants have the right to be present and to consult with an attorney of their choice, but in many cases the government did not respect this right, particularly in cases of alleged support for Boko Haram. When defendants cannot pay for their own legal defense, the court may appoint counsel at the public’s expense; however, the process was often burdensome and lengthy. Authorities generally allowed defendants to question witnesses and to present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Defendants have the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense and not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants may appeal convictions. The law extends these rights to all citizens, although they were not always extended in the cases of suspected Boko Haram affiliates.
Persons suspected of complicity with Boko Haram or considered likely to compromise the security of the state were consistently tried by military courts, and typically the quality of legal assistance was poor. The government assigned cases to trainee lawyers, who received 5,000 CFA francs ($9.32) per hearing for legal fees, and the payment procedure was cumbersome. Consequently, attorneys lacked motivation to handle such cases. In an interview published in L’Oeil du Sahel on March 1, barrister Richard Dzavigandi noted that for some lawyers, defending a terrorist suspect was an immoral cause. In addition, designated lawyers were often not allowed to access case files or visit their clients, which contributed to the poor quality of legal assistance. According to estimates by the Cameroon Bar Association, the military court in Maroua, Far North region, announced approximately 200 capital punishment sentences in 2016, 114 of which were between August and December. Sentences by military courts could be and were appealed to civilian courts. For example, on January 12, the Court of Appeals acquitted Abamat Madam Alifa and Gueme Ali, whom a military tribunal initially sentenced to death on terrorism-related charges. The same day the Court of Appeals also cancelled a military court decision and requalified the offenses concerning Damsa Dapsia Nadege Nadia, whom the military court initially had sentenced to death. The state has not executed anyone sentenced since 1997.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
No statistics were available on the precise number of political prisoners. Political prisoners were detained under heightened security, often in SED facilities. Some were allegedly held in DGRE facilities and at the central and principal prisons in Yaounde. The government did not permit access to such persons on a regular basis, or at all, depending on the case.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
Citizens and organizations have the right to seek civil remedies for human rights violations through administrative procedures or the legal system; both options involved lengthy delays. Unlike in the previous year, there were no reports the government failed to comply with court decisions on labor issues.
Individuals and organizations may appeal adverse domestic decisions to regional human rights bodies. Marafa Hamidou Yaya and Yves Michel Fotso, both accused of corruption, filed a complaint against the government with the United Nations’ working group on arbitrary detention.
Over the past few years, to implement infrastructure projects, the government seized land occupied or used by civilians. The government failed to resettle or compensate those displaced in a prompt manner, leading them to protest in the streets on several occasions. In a few cases, corrupt officials misappropriated the money the government had earmarked for compensation. In 2016 the government identified some offenders and opened cases against them. The cases were pending as of November. There was no reporting of intentional targeting of particular groups for discriminatory treatment.
Although the constitution and law prohibit arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence, these rights were subject to restriction for the “higher interests of the state,” and there were credible reports police and gendarmes harassed citizens and conducted searches without warrants.
The law permits a police officer to enter a private home during daylight hours without a warrant if he is pursuing a criminal suspect. Police and gendarmes often did not comply with this provision. A police officer may enter a private home at any time in pursuit of a person observed committing a crime.
An administrative authority, including a governor or senior divisional officer, may authorize police to conduct neighborhood sweeps without warrants, and this occurred.
Police and gendarmes sometimes sealed off a neighborhood, systematically searched homes, arrested persons, sometimes arbitrarily, and seized suspicious or illegal articles. In the early morning of March 18, security forces allegedly conducted a cordon-and-search operation in the neighborhoods of Metta Quarter, Azire, and T-Junction in Bamenda, Northwest region. They arrested and detained citizens without national identity cards until their identities could be established. They allegedly transported some of the persons arrested to unknown destinations in military trucks.
There were several reports police arbitrarily confiscated electronic devices and did not return them, especially in Anglophone regions.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government often restricted this right.
Freedom of Expression: Government officials penalized individuals or organizations that criticized or expressed views at odds with government policy. Individuals who criticized the government publicly or privately frequently faced reprisals. On several occasions, the government used the law requiring permits or government notification of public protests to stifle discourse, and many civil society and political organizations reported increased difficulty in obtaining approval to organize public gatherings. The government attempted to impede criticism by monitoring political meetings. In May government authorities reportedly shut down an Amnesty International news conference at which the rights group planned to discuss the plight of three students sentenced to a decade in prison for a Boko Haram joke.
The government also used antiterrorism legislation to exercise control over public and private expression. On April 24, the military court in Yaounde sentenced Radio France International (RFI)’s Hausa service journalist Ahmed Abba to 10 years in prison for “nondenunciation of acts of terrorism” and “laundering the proceeds of terrorist acts.” Authorities arrested Abba in 2015 in Maroua, Far North region, on suspicion of collaborating with Boko Haram and withholding information. After a 29-month imprisonment, Abba was released on December 22 when an Appeals Court judge acquitted him of “laundering of the proceeds of terrorism.” The judge, however, upheld the “nondenunciation of acts of terrorism” charge and sentenced Abba to 24 months in prison (time served) and a fine of CFA 55 million francs ($102,611).
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, although there were restrictions, especially on editorial independence, in part due to stated terrorism concerns, the fight against Boko Haram, and the crisis in the two Anglophone regions. Journalists reported practicing self-censorship to avoid repercussions for criticizing the government, especially on security matters.
Violence and Harassment: Police, gendarmes, and other government agents arrested, detained, physically attacked, and intimidated journalists for their reporting.
Based on estimates by the National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms, and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), authorities arrested at least eight journalists in connection with their reporting of the Anglophone crisis. On February 9, security forces arrested Atia Tilarious Azohnwi, a political journalist with The Sun and Amos Fofung, bureau chief at The Guardian Post. Both were released in August without charges. Tim Finnian and Hans Achomba were arrested in January for reporting critical of the government; they were released after the president’s August 30 decree, which freed 55 detainees.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The National Communication Council (NCC) is empowered to ensure all printed media comply with the legal requirement that editors in chief deposit two signed copies of each newspaper edition with the Prosecutor’s Office for scrutiny within two hours of publication. Journalists and media outlets practiced self-censorship, especially if the NCC had suspended them previously. The NCC issued several warnings and suspensions during the year.
NCC president Peter Esoka publicly warned journalists several times in the year to refrain from publishing stories on secession and federalism activities in the two Anglophone regions. On January 10, Northwest regional authorities sealed the premises of Bamenda-based Hot Cocoa 94 FM Radio. The authorities allegedly accused the station of inciting the population to civil disobedience. According to a CPJ report, the station was allowed to resume broadcasting within 48 hours with the condition that it handle sensitive issues objectively, especially during crisis situations. Epervier Plus and its editor received a six-month suspension for publishing allegations of embezzlement involving a senior divisional officer.
Libel/Slander Laws: Press freedom is further constrained by strict libel laws. These laws authorize the government, at its discretion and the request of the plaintiff, to criminalize a civil libel suit or to initiate a criminal libel suit in cases of alleged libel against the president or other high government officials. Such crimes are punishable by prison terms and heavy fines. The libel law places the burden of proof on the defendant. The government contended libel laws were aimed at safeguarding citizens whose reputations could be permanently damaged by defamation. The government and public figures reportedly used laws against libel or slander to restrict public discussion. On February 22, police arrested Medjo Lewis, editor of La Detente Libre. The High Court of Bafoussam, West region, subsequently sentenced him to two years in prison plus a fine of 10 million CFA francs ($18,656) for defamation. Lewis was granted an early release in September.
From January 17 to April 20, the government blocked access to the internet in the Southwest and Northwest regions. On January 17, the country’s four telephone operators, including South Africa’s MTN and France’s Orange, informed their subscribers in both regions that internet services were no longer available for reasons “beyond their control.” In late March the minister of telecommunications acknowledged authorities were behind the internet shutdown. Government authorities claimed the shutdown was an attempt to limit the propagation of images and misinformation about the crisis in the Anglophone regions, which the government perceived as a threat to peace and national unity. The Global Network Initiative released a statement in January expressing deep concerns about the restrictions on the internet and urging the government to lift the restrictions immediately.
Civil society organizations reported renewed, targeted Internet disruptions in select locations in the Southwest and Northwest regions after September 22 and following major protests in the Anglophone regions on October 1. Public announcements from the government indicated a willingness to block internet access again should the government deem it necessary. In October the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights voiced concern over tensions in the country’s Anglophone regions, noting that people should be allowed to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, including through uninterrupted access to the internet.
The International Telecommunication Union estimated that 25 percent of the population used the internet in 2016.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
Although there were no legal restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, state security informants reportedly continued to operate on university campuses. There were no reports the government censored curricula; sanctioned academic personnel for their teachings, writing, or research; restricted academic travel or contacts; intimidated academics into self-censorship; or attempted to influence academic appointments based on political affiliation. There were a few reports, however, of security personnel disrupting student extracurricular activities.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
Although the law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government often restricted this right. The law requires organizers of public meetings, demonstrations, and processions to notify officials in advance but does not require prior government approval of public assemblies and does not authorize the government to suppress public assemblies that it has not approved in advance. Nevertheless, officials routinely asserted the law implicitly authorizes the government to grant or deny permission for public assemblies. The government often refused to grant permits for assemblies and used force to suppress assemblies for which it had not issued permits. Authorities typically cited “security concerns” as the basis for deciding to block assembly. The government also prevented civil society organizations and political parties from holding press conferences. Police and gendarmes forcibly disrupted meetings and demonstrations of citizens, trade unions, and political activists throughout the year.
The Divisional Officer (DO) for Douala V, Littoral region, prohibited a meeting and rally that the opposition Social Democratic Front party intended to organize on March 4 at “Carrefour Le Pauvre” intersection, followed by a march along a specific itinerary. The DO stated the event was likely to disrupt public order. On March 4, authorities allegedly deployed police and gendarmerie antiriot cars, as well as armed gendarmes and police officers, around the planned meeting spot. Security forces erected barricades along the planned course for the rally. In the early hours of the day, authorities also deployed troops around the DO’s residence in Ndogpassi neighborhood in Douala.
In May authorities banned two events scheduled to take place in Yaounde, including press conferences by Amnesty International and NGO New Human Rights (NDH). The objective of Amnesty International’s conference was to communicate the contents of letters and petitions requesting President Biya to release three students whom a military court sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for exchanging jokes about Boko Haram by short message service. A dozen security agents in uniform and plainclothes invaded the meeting venue early in the morning and asked hotel officials to close the meeting hall. The NDH conference intended to focus on the topic “human rights and the fight against terrorism in Cameroon.” The DO alleged the event was likely to disturb public order. In August the Cameroon Political Journalists Club could not hold the ninth edition of its monthly Cafe Politique, which was scheduled to host a National Democratic Institute representative. Yaounde’s DO claimed the conference would disturb the public order and peace.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution and law provide for freedom of association, but the law also limits this right. On the recommendation of the senior divisional officer, the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization may suspend the activities of an association for three months on grounds the association is disrupting public order. The minister may also dissolve an association if it is deemed a threat to state security. National associations may acquire legal status by declaring themselves in writing to the ministry but the ministry must explicitly register foreign associations and religious groups; if they do not, the law imposes heavy fines for individuals who form and operate any such association. The law prohibits organizations that advocate a goal contrary to the constitution, laws, and morality, as well as those that aim to challenge the security, territorial integrity, national unity, national integration, or republican form of the state.
The conditions for recognition of political parties, NGOs, or associations were complicated, involved long delays, and were unevenly enforced. This resulted in associations operating in legal uncertainty, their activities tolerated but not formally approved.
On January 17, the minister of territorial administration and decentralization banned the Southern Cameroons National Council and the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, officially prohibiting all activities, meetings, and demonstrations initiated by either group or anyone sympathetic to them. The minister stated the purpose and activities of these organizations were contrary to the constitution and could jeopardize the security of the state, territorial integrity, national unity, and integration.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
Although the constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, at times the government restricted these rights. The government worked closely with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
In-country Movement: Police and gendarmes at roadblocks and checkpoints in cities and on most highways often extorted bribes and harassed travelers. Police frequently stopped travelers to check identification documents, vehicle registrations, and tax receipts as security and immigration control measures. Between September 29 an October 5, authorities in the two Anglophone regions closed regional land and sea borders, banned movement from one division to another, and in some cases, prevented people from leaving their homes on October 1.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
Several thousand persons abandoned their homes in some villages on the border with Nigeria and fled to cities in the Far North region because of frequent attacks by Boko Haram. The International Organization for Migration’s Displacement Tracking Matrix Round 11 for the Far North region indicated a total displaced population of 335,016 individuals, including 241,987 IDPs, 29,337 unregistered refugees, and 63,692 returnees. Of the IDP population, 92 percent was reportedly displaced due to the conflict with Boko Haram; and 8 percent was displaced due to flooding and other climatic factors.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: Following security measures taken by authorities in the Far North region to counter Boko Haram, UNHCR and NGOs reported more than four thousand cases of forced returns in the year to December, mostly of Nigerians. In a press release on February 23, UNHCR expressed concern over the forced expulsion of 517 Nigerians, including 313 who had requested asylum. During a press conference on March 23, the minister of communications refuted all allegations of forced returns. He acknowledged, however, that the government escorted refugees from several localities of Mayo Sava Division to Banki, Borno State, Nigeria. The minister said the operations were carried out in agreement with Nigerian authorities, especially the National Emergencies Management Agency and Borno’s State Emergency Management Agency. UNHCR also reported that 887 Nigerian refugees, who were alleged to have been forcibly returned, arrived in Banki on June 27.
Access to Asylum: The laws provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system of providing protection to refugees. UNHCR continued to provide documentation and assistance to the refugee population. UNHCR and the government continued to conduct biometric verification and registration of refugees, including of those not living in refugee camps. Nevertheless, local authorities did not always recognize these documents as official, which prevented refugees from travelling and engaging in business activities. As of November 30, the country hosted 247,777 refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) and 90,728 from Nigeria. The country hosted 652,967 persons of concern to UNHCR as of November 30.
Access to Basic Services: Most refugees had access to health care, education, and limited employment opportunities. Access to these services varied according to the location of the refugees, with those in camps receiving support through humanitarian organizations while refugees living in host communities faced difficulty receiving services.
Durable Solutions: On March 2, UNHCR and the governments of Cameroon and Nigeria signed a tripartite agreement concerning voluntary repatriation. On August 10, the tripartite commission met for the first time and directed its technical working group to set up a timetable and procedures “to ensure the safe, dignified, voluntary return and sustainable reintegration of Nigerian refugees from Cameroon.” Between April and June, the number of Nigerian refugees returning from Cameroon to Banki, Nigeria, reached 15,036. In addition the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) registered 5,224 individuals who had earlier returned to Banki between January and March. In total the NIS registered 20,260 returnees between January and June, according to UNHCR. Observers and NGOs, however, continued to report as of November that the agreement had yet to be fully implemented and that Cameroon continued forcibly to repatriate Nigerian refugees to Nigeria.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary, unofficial protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees, extending this protection to hundreds of individuals during the year, including third-country nationals who had fled violence in the CAR. Due to their unofficial status and inability to access services or support, however, many of these persons were subject to harassment and other abuse.