The case, which has been ongoing since late last year, will continue in court March 29 after a presidential decree removed the second judge from the case.
An ongoing terrorism case against 10 Ambazonia separatist leaders facing the death penalty in Cameroon’s military court in the capital was adjourned Thursday and will continue March 29 after the second presiding judge was removed from the case.
Cameroon Risks Further Slide into Violence, UN Warns
The otherwise uneventful hearing this week, in which the state is pressing charges against 10 leaders of a movement to form a separate state of Ambazonia from Cameroon, saw a heated scene when the defendants refused to leave the courtroom when officers attempted to prevent family and friends from greeting them.
“Ayuk Tabe and nine others refused to leave the courtroom when forces of law and order attempted to stop friends and relatives from greeting them. The request of the detainees was later granted,” a source present in court, who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons, told teleSUR.
Not much else happened as the judge had no jurisdiction over the case anymore. Colonel Mem Michel, formerly the presiding judge at the Yaounde military tribunal, has been taken off the case and transferred to the Southwestern region’s capital, Buea, Tuesday as ordered by a Presidential decree issued Feb. 5. He is the second judge to be taken off the case since Judge Abega Mbezoa gave up his post for unknown reasons.
During a previous hearing on Feb. 20, Mem ruled that the accused are Cameroonian nationals with refugee and asylum-seeking status but will still be judged in Cameroon.
The defense counsel has maintained that their clients are refugees who were illegally deported to Cameroon and should be returned to Nigeria.
Previously Colonel Mem had been the prosecutor in another case against opposition leader Maurice Kamto and other members of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement who were charged with rebellion for holding peaceful protests around the country and in Yaounde late January.
Kamto was charged in a military court with rebellion and seven other counts which could carry the death penalty, his lawyers said. Protests are rare outside of the Anglophone region in the Southwest, where a symbolic state of Ambazonia was declared Oct. 1, 2016.
In Mem’s stead Lieutenant-Colonel Jacques Boudoin Misse Njone, who is currently serving in Bamenda, a hotspot of clashes between separatists and Cameroonian security forces, will be appointed to the Tribunal in Cameroon’s capital. It remains to be seen if he will assume responsibility for overseeing the case due to resume in court March 29.
“The time is to permit the new judge appointed this week.. to constitute a new team that will restart the trial,” human rights activist Barrister Nalowa Bih told teleSUR, adding that it’s common practice in law, but raises questions in this instance.
The charges against the Ambazonia leaders stem from an anti-terrorism law that was recently approved by Cameroonian President Paul Biya, in power for 36 years now after winning last October’s contested presidential election.
“Civilians can be prosecuted with this law, and this was a law against Boko Haram that was passed, I think, three years ago. So this law is now being used against civilians, journalists, activists,” Cameroonian journalist Peter Tah previously explained to teleSUR.
A ruling was expected to be issued later this month, but the judicial upheaval means that the case will be reviewed anew. Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe and the other nine separatist leaders were arrested in Nigeria and extradited to Cameroon Jan. 5, 2017.
On the other side of the border, the Federal High Court in Abuja, Nigeria ordered last Friday, March 1, that the Nigerian government return Tabe and the other Ambazonia leaders to Nigeria.
That court ruled also in favor of rehabilitating and compensating the group five million Naira (about US$13,930) each after a legal team led by Nigerian human rights lawyers Barrister Abdul Oroh and Femi Falana filed for their return.
“They have never engaged in terrorism but [were] involved in the struggle for the independence of Ambazonia Republic from Cameroon,” Femi previously told teleSUR. “Nigeria is involved in the case because of the massive violations of the human rights of the defendants. As soon as the defendants were arrested in Abuja we sued the authorities of Nigeria in the federal high court.”
Members of the movement to form an independent state of Ambazonia do not consider themselves secessionists nor separatists. In fact, the first hearing in December was disrupted when the 10 leaders of the self-proclaimed "Republic of Ambazonia" renounced their Cameroonian identity, preventing proceedings to continue in a normal fashion.
The country's southwest, where separatists are fighting to secure territory for the independent state of Ambazonia, has been in an off-and-on crisis for two years. In 2016, lawyers and teachers took to the streets to protest for more English language representation in courts and schools, respectively. The government cracked down on those protests, prompting insurgents to react in an uprising. They clashed violently with government forces since.
In 2016, the group took up arms on Sept. 26 and again on Oct. 1 when they declared a symbolic independence from Cameroon. Security forces killed 40 people in September during a crackdown on protests. In November that same year, separatists killed at least six security officers.