The Cameroon Law No. 2014/028 of 23rd December 2014 on the suppression of acts of terrorism in Camerooni, was a welcome initiative in the fight against Boko Haram in the Northern parts of the country. However, its potential infringement on important human rights and freedoms protected under the Cameroon Constitution and international human rights law was immediately signalled per the barrage of criticisms that followed its promulgation.ii Many commentators echoed the fact that the vague definition of terrorism under the law could threaten freedom of expression, freedom of opinion and association and the freedom to take part in public protest. The law punishes with the death penalty ‘whoever, acting alone as an accomplice or accessory, commits or threatens to commit an act likely to cause death, endanger physical integrity, cause bodily injury or material damage, destroy natural resources, the environment or cultural heritage, with intent to: intimidate the public, provoke a situation of terror… disrupt the national functioning of public services…create widespread insurrection in the country…’iii The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism re-affirmed the model definition of terrorism implies an action intended to cause death or serious bodily injury and should not include property crimes.iv He also reiterated that the offence of incitement of terrorism must be limited to incitement to conduct that is truly terrorist in nature as per the model definition, and must only restrict freedom of expression no more than is necessary in a democratic society.
The important observation from the reading of the above Article 2 is that the terms are vaguely worded and include actions that don’t meet international standards for acts of terrorism such as property crimes. One also ponders whether every single element of the acts listed can independently amount to an act of terrorism, or such should be read together with the other elements. The same question applies to the intent, whether it is sufficient for one element of intent to be taken into consideration, for example, the intention to disturb the smooth functioning of public services or the intent to intimidate the public. The latter elements portray a scenario which is typical of protests in Cameroon. Protest movements in Cameroon often get violent either as result of provocation from security forces or the actions of some rogue elements amongst protesters who take advantage to cause disorder and loot properties. An example is the recent anti-marginalization movements in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon where in Bamenda protests turned violent after it was alleged police threw tear gas into a crowd of protesting lawyers.
The anti-terrorism law seemingly fails to draw a fine line between those acts and intent constituting criminal offences punishable under the penal code and those that amount to terrorism punishable under the 2014 law. The bringing of terrorism charges against persons exercising their inalienable human rights poses a serious threat to the enjoyment of those same rights. The circumstances of the arrest, detention and the charges of terrorism brought against the protest leaders lay credence to the fears raised from the inception of the law. A clear distinction should be made between persons whose actions or declarations are directly intended to terrorise the public or create widespread insurrections, and persons who exercise their rights and freedoms in a peaceful and lawful manner. At this stage, it is difficult to construe how the actions and declarations of Anglophone protest leaders charged for terrorism amount to the elements of the offence stated above, other than the fact that they led a civil disobedience against a perceived marginalization and erosion of the Anglophone systems of education and legal practice.
A highhanded application of the anti-terrorism law will lead to disproportionate punishment for the exercise of civil rights and liberties. This could be a bigger cause for concern as it could be used as a political tool to quell dissent and silent political opponents. Persons could incur the death penalty for the sole reason of exercising their freedoms of speech, opinion and association. The government has repeatedly swept off criticism against the potential threats to human rights posed by the 2014 law, arguing that the death penalty was meant to target groups such as boko haram. The law equally punishes with up to twenty-five years or fine of up to 50,000,000 CFA for acclamation of acts of terrorism. However, the term ‘acclamation of act of terrorism’ is also worded in such a way that it might limit the freedom of opinion and expression. In November 2016 three young students were sentenced by the military court to 10 years in prison for ‘non-denunciation of terrorist acts’ when a sarcastic message of them joking about boko haram was shown to authorities. Their sentence has been widely condemned as being disproportion and infringing into their right to freedom of expression.
The choice of the military tribunal as the only competent court as per this law is equally a call for concern. The designation of military tribunals to try civilians contravenes the non-derogable right to fair trial under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Military tribunals do not qualify as independent and impartial courts, as being part of the armed forces they fall under the executive branch of the government. Military tribunals under the Cameroon judicial organisation law and the law organizing military justice in Cameroon are designated as special courts charged with the trial of military offences provided by the code of military justice, offences committed by service men, certain offences committed by civilians in military establishments, armed robbery offences and other related gun offences. Here again the anti-terrorism law which carries disproportionate penalties for vaguely defined offences falls short of providing an opportunity for fair trial per international human rights standards.
Contra Nocendi urges the government to live up to its international obligations by ensuring that due process is respected and that persons charged under the law be guaranteed fair trial.
i Law No. 2014/028 of 23 December 2014 on the Suppression of Acts of Terrorism in Cameroon http://www.assnat.cm/gestionLoisLegislatures/libraries/files_upload/uploads/Lois/2014-028fr.pdf
ii Human rights under fire: Attacks and violations in Cameroon’s struggle with boko haram, Amnesty International Report 2015, p. 17
iii Article 2 Law No. 2014/028 supra.
iv UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Ten areas of best practices in countering terrorism, Report A/HRC/16/51, 22 December 2010, Human Rights Council, Sixteenth session