CAMEROON: Not quite back to normal

March 6th, 2008 by bobebill

YAOUNDÉ, 6 March 2008 (IRIN) – Traffic jams and urban bustle have returned to main towns and cities in the west and centre of Cameroon, belying the violence that just weeks earlier left many of people there dead and a general population so scared most did not leave their homes for several days.

Yet human rights groups remain concerned that the government is employing heavy-handed tactics in clamping down on the media and arresting and imprisoning hundreds, possibly thousands, of youth who they say are not receiving due process.

“The arrests [of those accused of taking part in the violence] continues,” human rights advocate Madeleine Afité, of House of Human Rights, told IRIN

The number of arrests is in dispute. A government spokesmen said the total is around 1,500 but Afité said the number is much higher. “Around 2000 people were arrested in Douala alone,” she said.

A lawyer in Yaoundé, Me Francis Djonko, told IRIN that those arrested are not receiving due process. “The accused should have at least three days to prepare their defence but that is not being respected in the cases I have had to defend,” he said, adding some of the accused have already receiving prison sentences of up to three years.

A source close to Cameroon’s President Paul Biya said that some members of the government are suspected of fermenting the violence and may soon by taken into custody. President Biya went on state media on 27 February during the rioting to say that “certain politicians” were seeking to overthrow his government in a coup d’état.

Figures on the number of dead also remain unclear. The government spokesperson Jean-Pierre Biyiti Bi Essam told the French Agency Press (AFP) on Wednesday that only 24 people had been killed but human rights groups say the number is far higher.

“We are still trying to cross-check information but we can already say that a hundred or so people must have died,” Afité said.

International media monitoring groups have accused government of censoring the media and beating and intimidating journalists as well as confiscating their equipment.

The government has also closed down at least three media houses but denies that it is part of a general effort to censor the press. “[The media houses] either carried out certain broadcasts which are insensitive, provocative, or controversial and obviously certain administrative decisions have been taken in order to ensure that these broadcasts do not endanger the stability or social order,” government minister Elvis Ngolle Ngolle told Voice of America.

The riots started in the economic centre Douala in the west of Cameroon on 25 February, and quickly spread to the political capital Yaoundé and other cities as youths protested against rising fuel and food prices and efforts by President Biya to change the constitution so that he could run again in the 2011 elections.
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Cameroon activists say riots kill more than 100
Thu 6 Mar 2008, 6:53 GMT
By Tansa Musa

YAOUNDE (Reuters) – Human rights campaigners in Cameroon accused the government on Wednesday of covering up the true death toll from riots last week, in which one organisation said at least 100 people were killed.

Crowds of youths fought police and soldiers in several towns and cities when a strike by taxi drivers over fuel prices turned violent amid anger over President Paul Biya’s plan to change the constitution to extend his 25-year rule.

Communication Minister Jean-Pierre Biyiti bi Essam told Radio France International on Tuesday that 17 people had died, and accused human rights groups of exaggerating the death toll.

But Madeleine Affite, Littoral Province coordinator for Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT), said the true death toll was higher. Littoral Province includes the commercial capital Douala and several other towns hit by riots.

“The information we have received from our field workers in the various towns affected by last week’s violent incidents, as well as complainTs from families, indicate that at least 100 people died in clashes with security forces, over 10 others missing and several hundred others injured,” she said.

“I’m afraid this number could even be higher when a final count is made in the coming days,” she told Reuters.

Fellow human rights activist Alice Nkom, who is a lawyer in Douala, agreed the official toll was too low.

“There are many more than they are saying, and they were killed by bullets,” she said. “They don’t want people to know.”

BODIES IN RIVER

Affite said 20 bodies had been recovered from Douala’s Wouri river where security forces confronted demonstrators a week ago.

“They were trapped by security forces on both ends of the bridge who started throwing tear gas at them. In the confusion that followed many of them were forced to jump into the river in a bid to save their lives, but died,” she said.

Affite said the authorities had instructed hospital morgues not to release the bodies of those killed in order to hush up the scale of the violence and the security forces’ response.

“We’ve met aggrieved families, we’ve met with hospital authorities who have told us that mortuaries are filled with corpses from last week,” Affite said.

Members of the Cameroon Bar Council criticised summary trials of hundreds of people detained in last week’s violence.

Many are being charged with looting of private and public property, destruction of property and erecting barricades, said Francis Ndjonko, one of six lawyers who have offered to represent defendants in court for free in the capital Yaounde.

“Once they appear in court, they are hurriedly tried without any defence counsel, with trials lasting sometimes just about five minutes, and sentenced to heavy terms in prison ranging from 14 months to two years and payment of fines,” he said.

Alice Nkom, a lawyer and human rights activist in Douala, said the city’s courts were working through some 450 defendants, many of whom she said had been beaten in custody.

“They have been tortured … They are naked from the waist up in court, and you can see the marks,” she said.

(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com)