Cameroon Jails Journalist over Boko Haram Allegations

Cameroon soldiers
Cameroonian soldiers stand guard amidst dust kicked up by a helicopter in Kolofata, Cameroon, on March 16, 2016. Cameroon has taken a leading role in fighting Boko Haram, but has been accused of arbitrarily detaining hundreds of people on suspicion of ties to the group. Joe Penney/Reuters

A military court in Cameroon has sentenced a journalist to 10 years in prison for alleged links to militant group Boko Haram.

In a ruling that human rights groups called "outrageous", a court in Cameroon's capital Yaounde sentenced Ahmed Abba, a correspondent for Radio France Internationale (RFI), on Monday after he was convicted for "non-denunciation of terrorist acts" and "laundering the proceeds of terrorist acts." The court also imposed a fine of almost 56 million Central African CFA francs ($93,000).

Cameroonian authorities arrested Abba in the country's Far North region in July 2015. He was detained for several months incommunicado, during which he was tortured, and was not given access to a lawyer until four months after his arrest, according to RFI.

Boko Haram, an insurgent group that rose up against the Nigerian government in 2009, has spread its attacks to Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Cameroonian authorities have arrested more than 1,000 people on allegations of supporting Boko Haram in the past three years, according to Amnesty International.

"Ahmed Abba's conviction, after torture and an unfair trial, is clear evidence that Cameroon's military courts are not competent to try civilians and should not have jurisdiction in these cases," said Ilaria Allegrozzi, Amnesty International's researcher in the Lake Chad region, which includes Cameroon.

The coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists' Africa program, Angela Quintal, said in an emailed statement that the "outrageous sentence" showed "the lengths that Cameroon['s] authorities are willing to go to intimidate the media and thwart freedom of the press."

Abba's defense team told RFI they plan to appeal the sentence. Prosecutors had originally pushed for the death penalty against the journalist, but the defense managed to secure the minimum sentence for money laundering.

One of his lawyers, Charles Tchoungang, told RFI that the charge of laundering proceeds of terrorist acts could not be verified during the trial and that prosecutors had not specified what had been laundered—money, vehicles or arms.

Cameroon's government has not commented publicly on the ruling. Newsweek contacted the Cameroonian high commission in London but has not yet received a reply.

Cameroon is ranked among the worst countries in the world for press freedom by the NGO Reporters Sans Frontieres. Authorities made use of a terrorism law that allows for trial by military court to keep Abba in detention for two years before his trial.

The Cameroonian government also shut down the internet in the country's English-speaking regions for three months earlier in 2017 after widespread protests led by teachers and lawyers against the imposition of French language and judicial systems. President Paul Biya finally ordered the internet to be restored on Thursday.

In November 2016, a military court in Cameroon sentenced three men to 10 years imprisonment for circulating a sarcastic text message about Boko Haram.