"Torture in Cameroon: an "ordinary" reality, a systematic impunity"

Publication of a report - detailed summary


The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) mandated an international investigation team in Cameroon from 23 August to 1st September 2003. Its goal was to evaluate the administration of justice and the degree of respect of fundamental freedoms, follow-up(1) on the practice of torture, with a view to submitting an alternative report to the Committee against torture (CAT).

La torture au Cameroun: une réalité "banale", une impunité systématique (in French)

Composed of Jean-Bernard Padaré, Vice-President of the Ligue Tchadienne des droits de l’Homme, member of the FIDH, and of Benoît Van der Meerschen, Coordinator of the Belgian section of the Defense des Enfants international, the mission went successively to the cities of Douala, Yaoundé, Garoua, Maroua, Bamenda and Kumbo.

On the overall, the FIDH researchers deplore that the majority of the highest authorities of the country sought to avoid them.

The report draws up a worrying toll of the human rights situation in the country.

1.A worrying and dated report: the recommendations of the United Nations mechanisms

The reports of the United Nations institutions are extremely critical on the human rights situation in Cameroon.(2) Yet to the views of the Ministry of Justice, Mr Ngwa-Messia, the UN reports relating to Cameroon constitute « mere extrapolations ».
For the President of the National Commission for Human rights and freedoms (CNDHL, see para. 4), « the government really wanted to promote human rights, but this does not mean that the human rights situation in Cameroon is fine » the situation remains bad and problematic areas are the rights of detained persons and the frequent use of torture.

2.Cameroonian justice: between inefficiency and security obsession

Cameroonian judicial system: the dominance of a worrisome military justice

In Cameroon, the role of military courts remains overwhelming. These courts go beyond dealing with strictly military affairs, and rule over civilian cases. Article 2 of the Law of January 10 1997 on the use of weapons, extends military jurisdiction over cases of illegal use of weapons. For the Prosecutor of Ngaoundéré this extension of jurisdiction is justified by the increase of criminality.

Added to their lack of independence, the judgements are delayed, as well as preventive detention, which gives an explanation to the considerable overpopulation in Cameroonian prisons. This is essentially due to the fact that in military trials, the Minister of Armed forces himself has to give the summons to the Military court. To the words of the Prosecutor of Ngaoundéré, these military courts are not prepared to take on these responsibilities.

Dysfunctions of the justice: violations of civil and political rights

Preventive (pre-trial) detentions are very long. In Maroua, the Prosecutor never visits the detention facilities.

Four types of pre-trial detention:
Administrative custody (garde à vue administrative)
may be ordered for 15 days, renewable indefinitely, by the Governor, the Préfet, the under-Préfet or the Head of District.

Military custody (garde à vue militaire)
military tribunals may decide of a 6 days military pre-trial detention for all person suspected of armed robbery.

Judicial custody (garde à vue judiciaire)
ordered by the judicial police, regular police or gendarmerie, strictly within a preliminary investigation of a flagrant delit. Lasts for 24 hours but is renewable 3 times.

Provisional custody (détention provisoire)
mandated by the prosecutor, it does not have any time limit (to the exception of cases when the suspect residing in Cameroon is liable of a penalty of less than 6 months and has never been condemned for a crime or for more than a year’s imprisonment. In that case the limit to the provisional detention is 5 days). Non-binding orders of the Minister of Justice limit this provisional detention to 3 months.

Examples of prolonged detention

A young prostitute has been detained in Douala since August 3 2001 for allegedly illegally carrying a weapon, while it was her client who had the weapon. The client has been murdered by the Gendarmerie while she was in detention. To date she is still in detention without having been judged.

Ms Sophie Ursule Kendjou’s husband, Commander of the Cameroon air force, was murdered on June 8 2002. She has been detained several times for this murder without a trial, even though suspects were arrested and confessed the crime in January 2003. She is since April 2003 released in provisional freedom, without any date for her trial.

The « security » argument

The mission had the opportunity to confirm the Committee Against Torture’s concerns, which highlighted that the drifts of security considerations of the Cameroonian government « seem to be given precedence over all other matters, including the prohibition of torture ».(3) In Ngaoundéré, after the attack of the Vice-Consulate of France on June 2003, a « security operation » was carried out and 32 persons were arrested. One of them was violently hit on the feet before being taken to the central police station, where he stayed for 12 days. Thereafter, he was transferred to the Ngaoundéré central police station, where he was detained for 1 month and 9 days. During this period, he never saw a single magistrate or a police superintendent. At the time of the mission, at the end of August, 16 persons were still in custody following these incidents.

3.Torture in Cameroon: a « banal » reality, a systematic impunity

Preliminary investigation, « fief of torture »

In answer to the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s concerns (4), the Secretary General of the Minister of Justice, Mr Ngwa-Messia stated that torture was very severely punished in Cameroon. Indeed, a new legislation, which punishes torture was introduced. (5)

Yet, the mission found that during preliminary investigations, torture, voluntary blows, ill treatment are daily practice in gendarmeries and police stations after an arrest. According to a prison chaplain, the injured persons come more often from the police stations themselves than from prisons.

No-one complains after being tortured or maltreated. Cameroonians are divided between a feeling of fear, the fear of reprisals if they decide to complain and of major discouragement as they do not believe in a fast and independent justice. This absence of complaints strongly contributes to reinforce the impunity of police forces in Cameroon.

Torture in prisons

The situation in prisons is also edifying: the FIDH researchers set out a macabre list of 45 persons, who died between January and August 2003, only a few days after their arrival at the central prison of Douala. This demonstrates the deplorable conditions of detention which reign in the prisons: prison overpopulation due in particular to the great number of provisional detentions, paying access to medical care, defective legal assistance, etc.

The prison of Douala highlights this situation: many prisoners do not have space to lengthen at night, being more than 150 in 24 m²; only three toilets exist for all prisoners; medical care is inexistent; and food is insignificant: it then returns to the families to compensate for the deficiency of the Cameroonian State.

The prison authorities clearly incriminate the attitude of magistrates on the overpopulation issue, who denounced that « for a stolen chicken, they are taken here ».

The access to medical care is at the charge of the prisoners. Even worse, trying to ensure medical care can be dangerous. Thus, in Ngaoundéré, the prison manager was sentenced to one year of suspended prison for having sent prisoners to get medical assistance at the hospital, before the sentence was squashed.

Even if the Cameroonian government considers that efforts have been made to modernise the prison administration, the civil servants who work in those prisons deplore the absence of any coherent policy to build prisons.

« Traditional torture »: the customary leaders

The FIDH mission also highlighted the practice of customary courts. In theory, those courts are only competent when all parties to the trial agree to see this court judge their dispute.

However, in some provinces, the traditional leaders, the Lamidos, are very powerful. Their decisions are carried out by their servants, the Dogaris, who, under the fallacious pretext of justice, plunder and torture their fellow-citizens with the quiet complicity of the official authorities, probably anxious to preserve an electoral base. Thus, the way is opened to all abuses. Testimonies of the victims of tortures and forced labour committed under the orders of the Lamido of Tchéboa, and gathered by the FIDH, are in this respect edifying.

Mr David Dilwa was suspected of having stolen 570 000 FCFA, and was arrested on 2001 by the territorial gendarmerie, which decided to release him because of a lack of proof against him. However, the sergeant decided to bring him to the Lamido of Garoua, then of Tchéboa. For a week, he was severely beaten up. His sister was then accused of having taken the stolen money. On 19 October 2001, she was sent to the Lamido of Tchéboa, where she was beaten up whilst her feet and hands were attached and a iron bar slided between them, before being sent to get medical care to the Lamido’s wives. Three days later, Mr Dilwa’s wife finds him her husband vomiting blood. The next day, she comes to bring him food but was not allowed to see him. His sister, who was released on 2 November 2001, learned that her brother died at the end of October. All steps taken by the family to find his remains remain vain until today.

In 2003, the Lamido of Tchéboa asked the stockbreeders, who were victims of steerings, a sum of 250.000 F CFA to enable the invitation of marabouts in order to cleanse the region. In spite of the protests of the Garoua authorities which denounced this situation, and in spite of the arrival of a mission of the inspection of the legal service which corroborated the denunciations of Cameroonian human rights associations, no disciplinary measure was taken against the Lamido.

The FIDH calls the relevant authorities to immediately engage impartial investigations in all the suspect cases of death of prisoners and allegations of torture; to engage legal proceedings against the authors of these acts; to ensure the adequate compensation for all victims and their families. The FIDH calls for the withdrawal of any jurisdiction to the traditional leaders.

4.A civil society under surveillance

Mandated by the FIDH and the OMCT, in the framework of their joint program the Observatory for the protection of human rights defenders, the mission underlined the surveillance of the civil society by the authorities in place.

The National Commission for human rights and freedoms (CNDHL) and civil society: a « guardianship »?

The National human rights and freedoms Commission (CNDHL) is a young institution. Born 13 years ago, it is one of the first committee of this kind in Africa.

The issue of its independence was often raised by United Nations institutions.

For its President, Mr Chemuta Divine Banda, the fact that the CNDHL was created by a presidential decree causes confusion for the population. Thus, a bill drafted to modify the decree should be examined by the Cameroonian Assembly in November 2003.

In this respect, the actual functioning of the CNDHL is not satisfactory. Composed of 24 persons, a political representation is ensured by the decree. However, when the Commission was set up in 1991, Cameroon was a single party regime. Since then, no renewal has taken place, and the CNDHL remains hopelessly closed to any representation of the opposition.

Moreover, the CNDHL remains ignored by the population. According to its President, the publication and diffusion of reports is too expensive. However, for the government, the functioning of the CNDHL is essential to ensure the emergence of the civil society. But, according to its president, what matters is « to sort out what is called the NGOs, to clean a little »...

Obstacles to the activities of civil society on the field

Human rights defenders, compared to political opponents of subversive people, are unceasingly hindered in their activities: shadowing, police custodies, humiliation, and sometimes even death threats.

In the North of Cameroon, Mr Abdoulaye Math, President of the Mouvement pour la défense des droits de l’Homme et des libertés (MDDHL) and his colleagues are threatened daily. On January 10 2003, the Prosecutor of the Maroua published an order which specifically asks to question and to defer all members of human rights associations, on simple suspicion of swindle. Thus, two activists of the MDDHL were arrested on April 2003, then released, but their identity cards are still confiscated. The Prosecutor does not deny the facts but argues that they are forgers who act under cover of human rights organisations.

In addition, relatives or private individuals, supported by the judicial authorities of this locality, complain often against the heads of the MDDHL. Mr Math was often put in custody, for various reasons.

Several accusations are linked to the denunciation of human rights violations. When the civil society actors denounced the case of 13 exploited minors the Prosecutor considered that « this new denunciation is a machination warped by Mr Math, President of an NGO, which sole goal is to tarnish the image of Cameroon, in order to obtain funding from the international human rights organizations ».

Similarly, members of the Action des chrétiens pour l’abolition de la torture (ACAT) in Douala, stay under constant watch. Their displacements are controlled by individuals, often identified as members of the gendarmerie or officers of the army. They are often arrested to justify their activities. In June 2002, an individual entered several times the offices of the organization and threatened the activists. After the ACAT complained, the individual was arrested and detained, but was freed of all charges without being heard or judged.

The « freedom of chattering » of Cameroonian press

Newspapers in Cameroon are numerous letting one believe that freedom of the press seems to exist. Yet, physical threats against journalists are frequent. A journalist of « Le Messager » had to flee the country after being attacked three times, and the director of this newspaper was threatened to death by telephone.

Thus, the FIDH and the OMCT recommend to the Cameroonian government to respect the provisions of the Declaration of human rights defenders, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 9 December 1998. The FIDH and the OMCT underline the necessity, with the risk of a fallacious use, to immediately abrogate the circular of the Prosecutor of Maroua, dated of 10 January 2003.

(1) The FIDH published in July 2001 a mission report « Cameroun, peur au ventre et chape de plomb. Disparitions, tortures, exécutions... le quotidien de la population de Douala ».

(2) Recommendations adopted on 4 November 1999 by the Human Rights Committee during its 67th session, Recommendations adopted on 6 December 2000 by the Committee against Torture during its 25th session, Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur against torture, Sir Nigel Rodley, before the Human Rights Commission on 11 November 1999.

(3) Concluding observations of the Committee against Torture : Cameroon. 06/12/2000. A/56/44,paras.60-66.

(4) Recommendations adopted on 4 November 1999 by the Human Rights Committee during its 67th session, Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur against torture, Sir Nigel Rodley, before the Human Rights Commission on 11 November 1999.

(5) Law n° 97/009 of 10 January 1997 modifying and completing some provisions of the criminal code, added an article 132 bis titled « Torture »

Read more