"You don’t know us and yet you defend our freedom"
In their legitimate war on Boko Haram, the Cameroonian authorities have violated the rights of some of the very people they were supposed to be protecting. This includes Fomusoh Ivo Feh, Afuh Nivelle Nfor and Azah Levis Gob. These three young men have been sentenced to 10 years in prison for sending a sarcastic message about Boko Haram.
I visited them in Yaoundé’s main prison on 21 November last. They remain dignified at this difficult time and are convinced that, with everyone’s support, they will very soon be able to rejoin their families and achieve their dream: to continue their studies and find a job.
Régina, the mother of Levis, one of the three being held in the prison, has not seen her son for more than 10 months because she lacks the money to get there
The minutes spent waiting seem like an eternity to me. To break the boredom, we seek out the few chairs and benches that are still useable in order to make ourselves comfortable. A smell of sweat mixed with apprehension and fear hangs over the huge visiting room of the main prison in Yaoundé, where prison guards doze on plastic mats.
Opposite the entrance door, a few shelves holding religious books serve as an untidy library. Benches and chairs are stacked in the background, all as worn and dusty as each other.
Régina, the mother of Levis, one of the three being held in the prison, has not seen her son for more than 10 months because she lacks the money to get there. She lives a long way from Yaoundé and it takes more than six hours by bus to reach the prison.
Like the other parents, Régina prefers to send money to a relative living in Yaoundé so that they can buy basic foods (gari, bread, sugar, rice, and dried fish) to ensure the young detainees have something to eat.
The arrival of the much anticipated trio into the visiting room breaks the atmosphere. Fomusoh Ivo Feh and his two friends Afuh Nivelle Nfor and Azah Levis Gob join us, smiling broadly. Friendly greetings are exchanged and jokes about what good shape Fomusoh is in.
Strong bonds between them
No hugs or embraces. And yet the strong bonds between them can clearly be seen through the sensitivity of their gestures, the warmth of their voices and the affection in their eyes. Ivo, Levis and Nivelle dream of continuing their studies and finding work so that they can support their families financially, families for whom they are their only hope. And yet these dreams were brutally crushed the day they were charged with "attempted insurgency against the Cameroonian state" and "failure to denounce" acts of terrorism.
And, following a long and difficult legal process that lasted more than two years, they were sentenced to 10 years in prison on 2 November last. Their “crime”? Receiving and passing onto their friends a joke via SMS. The joke read: "Boko Haram is recruiting young people aged 14+. Requirements: 4 GCEs, including religion", an ironic reflection on the difficulties of finding work in Cameroon.
The young men were tried by a military court
While the excitement and joy of such a reunion cannot be denied, it is difficult to forget the pain: the long legal process, the numerous referrals and, finally, their absurd sentences, striking you as a real insult to human rights.
This 10-year prison sentences are based solely on the "evidence" of one SMS found on Nivelle’s phone, which was confiscated by a teacher during a lesson.
Although they are English speakers, Ivo, Levis and Nivelle have had virtually no access to an interpreter throughout the whole process, the court hearings of which took place in French. The young men were tried by a military court even though they were arrested well before the adoption of an anti-terrorist law that gave military courts the power to try all terrorism-related cases.
I have worked for Amnesty International for two years now as Campaigns Officer and I have met many people whose rights have been violated by the security forces and the authorities in the context of the war on Boko Haram in Cameroon. I have shared their anguish and taken up their struggles for justice.
This includes the case of the missing people of Magdémé and Doublé, the case of Nadia, sentenced to death on the basis of limited evidence in an unfair trial, and also the case of the journalist Ahmed Abba, at risk of the death penalty.
I have shared their anguish and taken up their struggles for justice
I have celebrated the most unexpected joys and victories with these people and I have also, always, whatever the outcome, received words of thanks on behalf of the whole Amnesty International movement and all its activists.
Levis spoke on behalf of everyone. With a strong voice, strained with emotion, he looked me straight in the eyes and said: "You don’t know us and we don’t know you but you have been by our side since the beginning, working for our release. Amnesty International has done what even our own families have not. We will be forever grateful for that. You give us the strength to continue each day and not give up. It’s not easy but we’ll get through this. May God bless you and continue to help you in everything you do. Thank you for everything."
On this day, Ivo’s 27th birthday, thousands of human rights activists ask the Cameroonian authorities to release these three young men
On this day, Ivo’s 27th birthday, thousands of human rights activists the world over are again joining voices with those of Éric, Ivo’s brother, Régina, Levis’ mother, and Judith, Nivelle’s mother, to ask the Cameroonian authorities to show justice and respect for human rights by releasing these three young men.
They are asking the Cameroonian authorities to release the three prisoners of conscience, in implementation of the public statement made by the Minister for Communications on 2 December last. Based on clearly incorrect information, Minister Issa Tchiroma at that time stated that the three young people were no longer being held in detention. This is not the case and it is high time they were promptly and unconditionally released.