Rights group Human Rights Watch called on Cameroon authorities to immediately release all those held for their political views or for exercising their right to peacefully assemble.
Cameroonian security forces fired tear gas and water cannons and arrested hundreds of people, mainly opposition party members and supporters to disperse peaceful protests across the country on September 22, HRW said.
Many of the protesters were beaten and mistreated while being arrested and in detention, the group added.
HRW also calls on the African Union (AU), the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and Cameroon’s other regional and international partners to press the Cameroon government to hold to account those responsible for various human rights violations.
“African and regional bodies should call out Cameroon’s government for its repression and rampant abuses,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“As the end of the AU’s 2020 theme, ‘Silencing the gun,’ approaches, it’s crucial for these institutions to send strong messages to President Paul Biya’s administration that flagrant violations of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other human rights treaties are unacceptable.”
According to the opposition party Cameroon Renaissance Movement (Mouvement pour la renaissance du Cameroun, MRC), over 500 people were arrested on September 22, only 155 of whom have been released.
In a statement on October 14, Cameroon’s communications minister said that 294 people were arrested on September 22, of whom 176 have been released.
In early September, Cameroon authorities banned demonstrations across the country after the MRC encouraged people to take to the streets over the government’s decision to call regional elections in December.
The MRC said the government should revise the electoral law and resolve the crisis in the Anglophone regions – where violence has been acute since late 2016, – before holding these elections.
The government then announced that anyone organizing or leading demonstrations would be arrested, claiming that protests would endanger lives during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Cameroon communications minister warned political parties on September 15 that protests could be considered “insurrection” and that illegal demonstrations would be punished under the anti-terror law.
At least eight journalists were among those arrested on September 22, and it appears that at least some were deliberately targeted. Radio France Internationale (RFI)’s correspondent in Yaoundé, Polycarpe Essomba is among them.
Essomba, told Human Rights Watch that six policemen arrested him and bundled him in a truck where he was forced to lay down.
“Then they kicked me, and one hit me with a truncheon.”
The reporter, who was taken to the central police station in Yaoundé, was released three hours later. The other seven journalists were also released over the course of that day and the following day.
Maurice Kamto, the MRC leader has been held under de facto house arrest since September 22. Dozens of police and gendarmes surround his residence in Yaoundé, blocking him from leaving his home.
On October 5, his lawyers filed a request before the Yaoundé Court of First Instance seeking to free the leader, but the court rejected the request the following day “for lack of urgency.”
Two other prominent MRC leaders – its treasurer, Alain Fogue, and its spokesperson, Bibou Nissack – were also arrested, on September 21 and 22 respectively. They are being held at the State Defence Secretariat without charge.
“We feel as if there’s a normalization of repression,” a Cameroonian human rights lawyer, Michelle Ndoki, told Human Rights Watch. “The international community should know that the political space for opposition groups to express themselves freely is getting smaller every day.”
“The AU and the ECCAS should press President Biya to end the wave of repression and promote respect for human rights,” Allegrozzi said.
“African and regional bodies should not remain silent in the face of escalating repression and should rally support from within their institutions to hold Cameroonian authorities to their human rights obligations, including by calling for the immediate charge or release of all arrested demonstrators and political opponents.” (Source: HRW)