The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has found the Government of Cameroon violated international human rights law by imprisoning journalist Thomas Awah. Responding to a legal petition filed by Freedom Now and the international law firm Dechert LLP, the UN concluded that, “Mr. Awah’s arrest and detention stem from his peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression and opinion and to freedom of association.”
“We welcome the Working Group’s decision,” Freedom Now Legal Officer Adam Lhedmat said. “Thomas Awah has spent six long years in prison for his journalism. His case is a tragic example of the Cameroonian government’s persecution of journalists. We call on the government to abide by the Working Group’s decision and release him immediately.”
Prior to his arrest, Awah worked in the Anglophone region as a correspondent for the privately-owned Afrik 2 Radio, as publisher of Aghem Messenger magazine, and communications secretary of the non-violent secessionist Southern Cameroon National Council (SCNC), a group banned by the government. He had prior encounters with the government due to his journalism and activism and was detained on several occasions in 2015, though he has never been tried or convicted before.
His most recent arrest occurred on January 2, 2017 when he was seeking to interview residents of a town in the Anglophone region of Cameroon. Military officers stopped Awah as he was traveling alone. Once Awah identified himself as a journalist the authorities placed him under arrest without a warrant or any specific charges. The officers discovered Awah was carrying SCNC documents when they searched him. Two weeks later, the government would ban the SCNC on national security grounds.
After his arrest, Awah was taken to an unknown prison where he was interrogated for four hours about the Anglophone secessionist movement. On the same evening, he was transferred nearly 250 miles away to the capital city, Yaoundé, for pre-trial detention.
In May 2018, Awah was tried before a military tribunal along with two other journalists, Tsi Conrad and Mancho Bibixy, as well as five other Anglophone detainees; despite the men having no apparent relationship. It was here that Awah first learned of the charges against him, which included terrorism, hostility to the fatherland, secession, revolution, insurrection, the spreading of false news, the spreading of false news through electronic means, and contempt for civil authority. After a one-day trial he was found guilty of these charges and sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Awah is currently detained in Kondengui Central Prison, where he shares an overcrowded cell with 25 other prisoners, several of whom are forced to sleep on the ground for lack of beds. He suffers from several medical conditions, including tuberculosis and toxoplasmosis, which have been exacerbated by poor prison conditions.