A Cameroon military tribunal handed life sentences to 10 men who led a secessionist movement in the country’s two English-speaking regions.
The men, who were arrested in neighbouring Nigeria last year, were found guilty of charges including acts of rebellion and hostility against the state after a trial that took less than 24 hours and concluded around 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday, leader of their legal team, Nico Amungwa Tanyi said.
The men led a political movement that surfaced after Cameroon’s security forces in 2016 violently dispersed protests against the dominance of the French language in schools and courts in the Northwest and Southwest regions. Among them is Julius Ayuk Tabe, the self-proclaimed president of the area that separatists have labeled Ambazonia.
“This is a clear indication that government is not ready for dialogue on the Anglophone crisis,” Christopher Ndong, one of the defending lawyers, to,d Bloomberg on phone Wednesday. The verdict was pronounced while the lawyers had withdrawn from court and the judge withheld permission for the accused to bring in new lawyers, he said.
Nigerian authorities detained 47 secessionists and forced them back on a plane to Cameroon in January last year even though most of them had submitted asylum claims. Their extradition was condemned by the United Nations Refugee Agency, which said it contravened international law.
A full-blown rebellion in the two regions has since resulted in hundreds of deaths, the closing of most primary and secondary schools and the near-collapse of the local economy. Cameroon’s top state-owned agribusiness company said last month the crisis has had a “disastrous” effect on its operations, cutting output of palm-oil and rubber and leaving most of its banana plantations destroyed.
President Paul Biya, who’s been in power for almost four decades, has repeatedly vowed to quash the separatist rebels. The Communications Ministry said on Twitter it has “taken note” of the military tribunal’s ruling.
“This is nothing less or more than a deliberate attempt by the Yaounde regime to bring about the total deterioration of the situation in the Northwest and Southwest regions, which for nearly three years have paid the heaviest price in this crisis,” Maximilienne Ngo Mbe, head of the Network for Human Rights Defenders in Central Africa, told reporters Tuesday.
The only country in Africa with both English and French as official languages, Cameroon was split after World War I into a French-run zone and a smaller British-controlled area. They were unified in 1961, but the English-speaking minority, about a fifth of the population, has complained of marginalization for decades.