Article 1 of the Convention Against Torture defines torture as:
"…any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions."i
Going by the above definition, and taking into consideration the reality of arbitrary pretrial detention in Cameroon which does not amount to ‘lawful sanctions’, we are inclined to hold that the conditions in some prisons and detention cells in Cameroon, characterised by overcrowding, sleep deprivation, poor sanitation and nutrition, etc, which inflict physical and mental suffering on detainees, tantamount to torture. Such treatment may cause detainees to suffer mental breakdown and even permanent psychological trauma. According to an Amnesty International Report on Cameroon 2016/17, the Kondengui prison currently houses 4000 inmates despite having a maximum capacity of 2000.ii
A protester (name withheld), released in February from the Yaounde Kondengui prisons after being arrested in Bamenda and detained for over a month, narrated his ordeal to one of Contra Nocendi Cameroon’s Advocacy Associates. He counted himself lucky and lamented the fate of those who were still being detained. He stated that though he didn’t experience any severe physical mistreatment, the conditions under which he was detained alone are worse than any form of physical punishment like chaining and beating. He stated that the detention was meant to instill fear in him so that he will abstain from exercising his right to peaceful protest. In response to Contra Nocendi's enquiries as to if he would protest again, he said no, that it is now impossible for him to do so, especially as his family members have warned him never to find himself near any public protests ever again.
A second released detainee complained of horrible conditions characterised by massive overcrowding, poor feeding, bad hygiene with a permanent pungent smell, as a result of which he became sick. He complained of a water shortage crisis that caused inmates to go for days without bathing. And that as a result there was a scare of the possible spread of diseases. He described the area where less privileged prisoners were kept as ‘Hell on Earth’.
Another issue decried by the released detainees was the presence of some sort of 'government structure' in the Kondengui prisons, run by a number of prisoners who can decide the conditions under which the others stay there, depending on their financial situation. "If you can’t afford to pay them, you might not be able to get sleeping space and your movement within the prison premises could be restricted, a sort of prison within the prison," he said.
Contra Nocendi sees such deplorable, inhumane detention conditions and the fear and trauma it inflicts on detainees as a form of torture. Persons detained for the sake of exercising their rights to freedoms of speech, assembly and association, and living under such inhumane conditions are indirectly coerced to give up their rights. We are strongly of the view that detention especially pending trial shouldn’t be used as a tool to weaken accused persons and render them helpless in the face of charges brought against them. We also believe it is costlier for the state and community if a person returns from custody physically and psychologically traumatized, and unable to contribute positively to society.
We re-iterate our call to all relevant authorities to respect international and regional standards and fight to eradicate torture in all its forms. On the occasion of this International Day for the Support for Victims of Torture, we at Contra Nocendi raise our voices strongly in #Support of #Victims. They must #Recover and #Thrive again!
i Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment and Punishment, 10 December 1984. United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1465, p. 85
ii Amnesty International Report on Cameroon 2016/17 https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/africa/cameroon/report-cameroon/