Cameroon: 2 Years On, Massacre Victims Await Justice
The trial of 21 people accused of participating in the murder of 21 civilians in Ngarbuh, in the northwestern region of Cameroon, on February 14, 2020, dragged on for 14 months, Human Rights Watch said today. The slow pace raises concerns about the efficiency and ability of the justice system to deliver justice to victims. The lack of progress is compounded by the limited opportunity for access and participation of victims’ families, the lack of evidentiary witnesses, and the fact that senior officers with command responsibility have not been arrested or charged. The only witnesses so far did not see the killings and claimed the victims were separatist fighters.
“When the trial began, it was welcomed as a step toward justice and the fight against impunity for military abuses in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But two years after the massacre, the victims and their families are still waiting for justice, while the security forces continue to commit serious human rights violations.”
The Ngarbuh killings were one of the worst atrocities committed by Cameroon’s security forces since the crisis began in the Anglophone regions of the country in late 2016. The government initially denied that its security forces were responsible. But following international pressure, President Paul Biya set up a commission of inquiry on March 1, 2020. The government then admitted that its security forces bear some responsibility and announced the arrest of two soldiers and a gendarme in June 2020.
Human Rights Watch’s investigation concluded that government forces and armed Fulani ethnic groups killed 21 civilians in Ngarbuh, including 13 children and a pregnant woman, burned five houses, looted dozens of other properties, and beat residents in a retaliatory operation. against the community suspected of harboring separatists. wrestlers The ethnic Fulani who live in and around Ngarbuh are also known as “mbororo” and are primarily herders. Ngarbuh’s trial began on December 17, 2020 before the military court in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, and has had 15 sessions. The next one is scheduled for February 17, 2022. Among the defendants are two military men: a sergeant and a private first class from the 52nd Motorized Infantry Battalion (Battalion d’intervention motorisé, BIM), a gendarme, a former separatist combatant and 17 Fulani vigilantes, who remain at large. They have been charged with murder, arson, destruction, violence against a pregnant woman and disobedience of orders.
The court is about 450 kilometers from Ngarbuh, which makes it difficult for relatives of the victims to attend. The relatives’ lawyers raised concerns about the issue in March 2021. Since then, only two relatives of the victims have testified in court.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has said that “all investigations must be prompt, impartial, thorough and transparent” and that if “all necessary steps are not taken in a transparent manner to investigate suspicious deaths and all killings committed by [s]State agents and identifying and holding accountable persons or groups responsible for violations of the right to life constitutes in itself a violation by the State. [s]status of that right.
In accordance with international standards, including the United Nations Minnesota Protocol on the Investigation of Potentially Unlawful Deaths and the jurisprudence of human rights bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights, for an effective investigation to be transparent, victims and their families They must have reasonable access.
Lawyers for the victims and their families told Human Rights Watch that sections 177 and 189 of Cameroon’s Code of Criminal Procedure provide the possibility for a magistrate to go to Ngarbuh and collect testimony from witnesses. But instead, the lawyers said, courts have used section 336 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to allow criminal proceedings to be heard and determined without the presence of witnesses.
International standards also require an effective investigation to identify and collect evidence from evidentiary witnesses, take all possible steps to identify and locate those suspected of being involved in the crime, and hold accountable all those responsible, including those with command responsibilities. .
Instead, the relatives’ lawyers said the prosecution has presented testimonies from people who were not witnesses to the murders and whose testimony is at odds with the accounts of the witnesses provided during the preliminary investigation, as well as with the reports about the massacre. of the United Nations and local and international. international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch.
“The testimonies of the administrative and military authorities, who act as prosecution witnesses in this case, try to show that those killed in Ngarbuh were separatist fighters and not civilians,” said Barrister Menkem Sother, one of the relatives’ lawyers. “It appears that the aim of the investigation will be to prove that Cameroon’s security forces only killed separatist fighters in Ngarbuh, and that the killing of any civilians was the work of vigilantes.”
The judicial authorities also do not appear to have made any effort to locate the accused guards. According to relatives’ lawyers, investigators had the phone number and location of at least one vigilante, but did not appear to have attempted to locate or arrest him or explain why they did not.
In Anglophone regions, vigilantes work in conjunction with local authorities and security forces and receive material support from the government in the form of motorcycles, first aid kits, flashlights and metal detectors. As a result, subdivision officers, including Ndu’s, which includes Ngarbuh, should normally have a list of watchmen working in their areas.
The prosecution strategy also fails to hold accountable the authorities who directly supervised the suspects and the units and personnel that carried out the military operation in Ngarbuh. This includes the commander of the 52nd BIM, who acknowledged that he authorized a reconnaissance operation to Ngarbuh, and the Ndu subdivision officer. The 17 vigilantes would have been operating under his supervision. According to the relatives’ lawyers, all the suspects claimed that the operation in Ngarbuh had been authorized by the commander of the 52nd BIM and the sub-prefect of Ndu.
Lawyers for the victims also said that the judge in charge of the case is also part of the appeals court, to which complaints about the trial and requests for review will be referred. “If the parties are not satisfied with the sentence and the case is referred to the appeals court, the review will be carried out by the same judge,” said Barrister Richard Tamfu, one of the lawyers for the relatives. This is a flagrant violation of the right to appeal to an impartial tribunal. As stated in the Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Aid in Africa, judicial impartiality is compromised if “a judicial officer sits as a member of a court of appeal in a case in which he decided or participated in a lower instance”. judicial body.”
As the trial progresses, Cameroonian security forces continue to commit serious crimes in Anglophone regions, underscoring a climate of impunity that has fueled the crisis in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions for the past five years. Armed separatist groups have also committed abuses, including assassinations, kidnappings, torture and widespread attacks on education. This highlights the urgent need for effective investigations that meet international standards into all serious abuses.
“The lack of justice for the killings of civilians in Ngarbuh and the recurring military abuses are avoidable consequences of failing to ensure effective investigations and prosecutions,” Allegrozzi said. “The Cameroonian authorities must rein in their security forces, ensure abuses end, and ensure that those most responsible for the Ngarbuh killings, as well as other serious abuses, are held accountable in fair and effective trials.”