The trial of three civil society figures and political activists – Felix Agbor Balla, Fontem Aforteka’a Neba and Mancho Bibixy – has opened in Cameroon’s capital Yaounde.
The three face multiple charges including complicity in hostility against the homeland, secession and civil war, and campaigning for federalism following their involvement in protests in Cameroon’s two western English-speaking regions. If found guilty, they could face the death penalty.
The protests began in October 2016 and target the marginalization of English speakers by Cameroon’s Francophone majority. At least six protestors have been shot dead and hundreds have been arrested.
A fifth of Cameroon’s population of 22 million is English speaking, a legacy of the unification of two colonial-era entities previously run by Britain and France. English speakers complain that the country’s wealth hasn’t been distributed fairly and that they suffer discrimination.
The trial of the three activists was originally scheduled to begin on February 1 but was postponed. After preliminary proceedings on February 13 in which the three declared they were not guilty, the case was postponed once more until March 23 to allow the state to present its list of witnesses.
“We haven’t yet completed our investigations,” the prosecutor said. “We are still registering victims.”
Defense lawyers have complained that the prosecution was flouting the law by failing to hand over their witness list five days before the start of the trial.
Alice Nkomn, a lawyer and president of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, is representing Abbor Balla. She sounded pessimistic.
“You can see clearly that these are all hyper-political offences, which means you have no chance, none,” she said.
The Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium is an organization which backs secession and was recently outlawed by the government.
Secessionists are calling for the establishment of an independent state called Southern Cameroons. More than 160 lawyers have lined up in support of the defendants.
The trio is being tried under a 2014 law created to help combat Boko Haram, the Islamist militants who have been crossing the border from Nigeria into northern Cameroon.
The anti-terror law is being used to curtail dissent and that infringes on the basic rights and freedoms in the constitution,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, a Central Africa researcher for Amnesty International.
In a speech last week, Cameroonian President Paul Biya blamed the unrest on extremist and separatist groups who he said were preaching hate and violence.
One of the defendants, Mancho Bibixy, is accused of being a leading secessionist in English-speaking Bamenda, which has become the epicenter of the protests against marginalization.
Bamenda residents say they are victims of a government crackdown. The internet has been shut down there since January 17 in an apparent bid to quell unrest.
Residents have responded by shutting down schools and businesses in what have become known as “ghost town” protests.
Mark Caldwell with reports by Reuters and AFP