Breaking News: Cameroon Unleashes Terror on Lawyers, Bar Association Declares Nationwide Strikes
Lawyers in Cameroon say they will go on a five-day nationwide strike from November 30 to December 4 to protest “the persecution of lawyers” in the Central African country. The call comes following the arrests of four lawyers after they were brutalized and tear-gassed in a courtroom at the Court of First Instance in Douala on November 10.
The Court was to hear the case of two lawyers-Barristers Augustin Wanto and Annie Christelle who had been remanded to prison custody since November 5 on charges of “contempt of Court and attempted corruption”. But the session turned violent when the Presiding Judge refused to grant them bail as requested by the over 300 lawyers who turned out to defend them. The forces of law and order then swooped into the Courtroom, beating up and tear-gassing the lawyers.
Four lawyers have since been arrested in connection with that incident, including Human Rights Lawyer, Barrister Richard Tamfu. Barrister Tamfu and Maître Armel Tchuemegne who were both picked up November 18, will face the courts on Monday, November 23. They are accused of violence, the use of language that could incite violence and disrespect for constituted authority.
The barristers now say the persecution of lawyers in Cameroon has “crossed a threshold”.
“We have recently sadly witnessed a rise in intimidation, threats and reprisals against lawyers in general and in particular, those working on human rights and politically sensitive issues,” Human Rights Lawyer and Coordinator of the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, Barrister Felix Agbor Balla said on Twitter.
“The arrest and detention of renowned Human Rights Advocate, Barrister Tamfu Richard and other colleagues is a clear indication that government has no respect for the legal profession. This clearly shows a complete disregard and disdain towards lawyers,” he said.
Meeting Saturday, November 21 in an extraordinary session, the Bar Council under the aegis of its Interim President, Claire Atangana Bikouna condemned the spike in violence against lawyers, and resolved to suspend, until further notice, the appearance of lawyers in criminal matters in all the courts throughout the National territory, including the Supreme Court and the Special Criminal Court and also suspend all appearances by lawyers in all courts dealing with electoral disputes, including the Constitutional Council; after the nationwide strike action.
A release that sanctioned the meeting reads in part: “Investigations reveal that the State Counsel of the Court of First Instance Bonanjo, Douala, has ordered for the arrest and detention of 15 lawyers; some of whom are either victims or eyewitnesses of the November 10 incident. The incarceration of these two colleagues points to the fate of the remaining 13 lawyers on his list. This leaves no one in doubt as to the existence of an elaborate scheme to persecute Lawyers through judicial actions, as well as the avowed resolve of some Magistrates to denigrate Lawyers and impede the exercise of their profession at all levels”.
The advocates are not unaware that the government could ignore their collective action and rather intensify the repression. It is in anticipation of such behaviour that the Bar Council’s release notes that “besides the ensuing measures and without prejudice to any other subsequent measures to be taken, including the convening of a protest Extra-Ordinary General Assembly and, until an end is put to this cabal by the release of all lawyers in detention…”
Barrister Morfaw Evaristus Nkafu, President of the General Assembly of the Cameroon Bar Association
In an interview with Timescape Magazine, Barrister Morfaw Evaristus, President of the General Assembly of the Cameroon Bar Association said despite government’s well-known bad faith, they are convinced that the current actions would yield some results. He said the total disregard for the role and persons of lawyers is a direct assault on the country’s democratic credentials, adding that the authorities had “crossed the red line”.
In 2016, Common Law Lawyers of the Once Independent State of Southern Cameroons who were protesting the erosion of their legal system by the mainly Francophone administration in Yaounde were brutalized and savagely beaten by security forces in Buea. Some of the advocates saw their professional robes and wigs confiscated to date. Despite boycotting the courts for several months, the government remained unmoved, contending that the lawyers were running private chambers and were answerable only to their clients who pay for their services.
In line with that experience, Barrister Stanislas Ajong, Country Chairman of the African Bar Association told Timescape Magazine that “The President of the Republic is the one who appoints and disciplines magistrates, all bills examined in Parliament are brought in by the government only, meaning there is no separation of powers, resulting in the collapse of the rule of law. As such, the future of the legal profession in Cameroon is bleak and there is little chance this strike action brings about any changes”.
In an official statement availed to Timescape Magazine, Barrister Ajong notes “We have noted with grave concern the continuous and unabated use of the judicial setup to silence the Cameroonian lawyers and prevent them from carrying out their functions as recognized and regulated in the comity of nations…We are by this correspondence, lending our full support to the Cameroon Bar Association for all and any other actions that will be taken to restore the dignity of the calling”.
Barrister Ajong goes further to make a proposal which could see the advocates sitting on the same table with Cameroon’s President, Paul Biya who is also Chairman of the Higher Judicial Council. He writes “We also, suggest that you seek avenues to meet with the head of the Judiciary in the country who is the Chairperson of the Higher Judicial Council. In the encounter, he should be reminded to heed to the reasoned recommendation of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Communication 266/03 and relinquish executive power over the judiciary”.
No authority at the Cameroon Ministry of Justice returned Timescape Magazine calls and emails seeking a comment on the proposed strike action by the Bar Association. The country is set to organize regional elections in the country on December 6, 2020.