Trapped in the fight against Boko Haram, three young Cameroonians risk the death penalty

After six years in prison, three young women accused of participating in the terrorist group Boko Haram will be tried for the first time by a civilian court on July 24 in northern Cameroon. They have the death penalty. Their lawyer condemns France 24 for a legal error.

Marie Dawandala, Damaris Doukouya and Martha Weteya were just 17 years old when they were arrested, in October 2014, in their village near Mokolo, in the Francophone region of North and North Cameroon, a stone’s throw from the Nigerian border. They are accused of involvement with Boko Haram, the terrorist group that then raged in eastern Nigeria and in border areas, including the Far North particularly affected. Between 2014 and 2017, 2,000 civilians and soldiers were killed and more than a thousand people were abducted in the region of the jihadist group.

After several dismissals, their trial for espionage, belonging to an armed gang and involvement in the uprising, should finally begin on July 24 in Mokolo. Now 23 years old, they face the death penalty. But their lawyer, Me Nestor Toko, several associations and the network Together against the death penalty (ECPM) is leading a campaign to condemn a misdemeanor of justice, another in a region of Cameroon where, according to them, several hundred prisoners would be the same injustice.

“The Cameroonian authorities have arbitrarily arrested hundreds of suspected Boko Haram supporters, many of them without further investigation, and charged them with terrorism, which can be punishable by death,” said Marie-Lina Samuel, coordinator of the Africa project ECPM. In its report “Sentenced to oblivion: investigative mission on the death row in Cameroon“underlines the multiplicity of unfair trials in terrorist cases in this Central African country.

The fight against Boko Haram and the consequences of an ultra-security response

In 2013, the three young women left the Far North, the poorest region in Cameroon, to look for work in Nigeria. They settle across the border, in Madagali, Adamawa State. But instead of the skipped job, it is violence and conflict that they find in the neighboring country.

That year, Boko Haram multiplied the terrorist attacks and blurry attacks on civilians in eastern Nigeria. Following the intervention of the Nigerian army, it was impossible to stop the group’s expansion. In 2014, Boko Haram continued its territorial control and systematized kidnappings. Tens of thousands of civilians are fleeing the group’s abuses and clashing with the army to seek refuge in neighboring Niger, Chad or Cameroon. In this context, in September 2014, Marie, Damaris and Martha quickly returned to their Cameroonian village.

Cameroon is engaged in the fight against Boko Haram, ahead of attacks by the group that particularly led to an invasion into the north of the country in May 2014. The fight against jihadists became a national thing and security forces carried out “sweeping operations”, arresting thousands of people. But they are also guilty of “human rights abuses”, according to a report fromAmnesty International was published in 2015. It was in this context that the three young women, still minors, were arrested in October 2014.

Accused of belonging to Boko Haram without understanding why

By then Damaris had just given birth and Marie was pregnant. None of them have been to school, they do not speak the French used by the justice administration and the police and do not have the opportunity to hire a lawyer. They are struggling to understand the charges against them.

“When I was arrested, I was not told why. It was at the Maroua Gendarmerie that I was told I belonged to Boko Haram. My heart stopped; I lost consciousness. When I woke up, my body no longer belonged to me. I breastfed my baby and my chest no longer flowed I did not understand: while we were all fleeing Boko Haram I was accused of belonging to the group “trust in Damaris, in aCornell Center Report, an American organization against the death penalty that participated in the campaign to defend the three young women.

“I was accused of being with Boko Haram when I did not know anything about it. Until my death, this bad word from Boko Haram will be engraved in me,” Marie testified.

Imprisoned for 6 years with his children

The young women are first imprisoned in Moloko, then in the central prison in Maroua where Marie gives birth to her son. In 2016, after 17 months of preventive detention, Marie, Damaris and Martha were brought before a military court that sentenced them to death for complicity in terrorism.

Imprisoned in deplorable conditions – overcrowding, lack of food, hygiene, heating, lack of medical care, isolation, etc. – they raise their children in prison while they wait for execution. Until 2019, when lawyer Nestor Toko, chairman of the network of Cameroonian lawyers against the death penalty, decides to defend them. He manages to have the death sentence overturned by the military court, which does not have the power to try minors, and handles the transfer of their case to the civil court in Mokolo.

“Orders for the sample”

On 24 July 2020, it will be before this Court that he will request a direct annulment of the procedure. “The whole file is based on an irregular preliminary investigation. This file is empty,” he told France 24.

“These women were arrested because of the confession of a single witness, interrogated under torture and threatened not to see their child again if he did not give his name,” said the lawyer who could meet the witness, himself imprisoned. “The witness had to sign the minutes without understanding the contents because he cannot read. It is a common practice in this region of Cameroon,” he added, condemning violations of procedures and basic principles of justice.

“The Cameroonian authorities have carried out a systematic campaign of repression to show that they can ensure the safety of citizens but in violation of human rights,” the lawyer said. “The presumption of innocence has flown. These women have completed almost 6 years in prison without having the right to a fair trial. It is a punishment without a verdict,” the lawyer, who condemns “the lack of independence of justice.” “These women are examples in the fight against terrorism; today their lives are being crushed,” he lamented.

Today, despite the fact that Boko Haram is still carrying out repeated attacks in the villages of the northern islands, which are far from the border with Nigeria, looting and destroying everything in their path, the fight against the group is no longer established. national. Since 2016, it is the Anglophone crisis that has focused all eyes.

In Maroua or Mokolo, life has resumed and the time out seems far away. A reduction in the intensity of the conflict can therefore benefit young women. But Nesto Toko remains cautious. According to him, the trial is not immune to new dismissals and he fears that the procedure will continue for several more months. Marie, Martha and Damaris swing between the fear of being sentenced to death again and the meager hope of one day, perhaps, of being freed and cleared of all suspicion.