Forty dead. That’s the official death toll of demonstrations and protests late last month in Cameroon. But human rights organisations say the number of people killed and injured was much, much higher. They accuse the government of President Paul Biya of covering up the scale of the violence. Cameroonians say there is now a climate of terror in their country. RNW’s Eric Beauchemin is one of the few foreign journalists to have visited the country since the violence last month.
The violence broke out in Douala, the economic capital of Cameroon. Thousands of young people spontaneously took to the streets to protest against an increase in the price of transport. But they were angry too about rising food prices and the lack of jobs.
They also object to President Paul Biya’s plans to amend the constitution so he can run for yet another term in 2011. President Biya has ruled Cameroon for the past 25 years and like several other ageing African leaders, he has no desire to relinquish power.
Corpses being held
A month later, the traces of the barricades are still evident everywhere. Human rights organisations say that at least 100 people were killed during the violence. Christian Calmen (pictured below) was among those who lost a family member. His brother was trying to fetch his 5-year-old son from school. He was shot dead by a police officer 10 metres from his home in a busy area of the city.
Calmen has since been trying to recover his brother’s body to bury him. He has contacted various human rights organisations, but so far they haven’t been able to secure his brother’s corpse. Last week, Calmen met with the senior divisional officer.“I was surprised by his reaction. He didn’t even treat me like a human being. He just sent me away and said that is not his problem.”
The authorities are demanding that Calmen and other relatives pay for the release of the bodies of their loved ones. Human rights groups charge that the government is simply refusing to return dozens of corpses in order to cover up the scale of the violence
According to Madeleine Afité of House for Human Rights, a local organisation, officials are barring people from taking photos of their dead relatives and preventing them from publishing the results of autopsies.
Even more disturbing say human rights groups is that the authorities are randomly rounding up young people, regardless of whether or not they were involved in the violence. Some have managed to avoid arrest by paying huge bribes to security forces and the police, but at least 800 are currently being detained in the central prison of Douala alone. Charges have been filed against 1000 to 1500 young people.
A prominent human rights lawyer, Alice Nkom, says many of the youths have been tortured and they are being subjected to mass trials.
“They are tried in small groups and only the prosecutor knows who is going to be tried that day. Defence lawyers don’t know. They haven’t even been able to access the police reports. In one case, police field a single report for 150 or 200 people. This is clearly not justice. I believe that these cases are being ordered by senior officials.”
I was unable to get a statement from the authorities about what Alice Nkom describes as the current “climate of terror” because they refused me accreditation. But by arresting hundreds upon hundreds of young people, says Cardinal Christian Toumi, the government is are just fanning the flames of a highly volatile situation.
“The fact of putting them into jail just makes things worse,” says the leader of Cameroon’s Catholic Church. “The authorities can put 4,000 or 5,000 in prison, but there are millions of young people out there. Anything can happen.”
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