Cameroon: Authorities must urgently protect detainees against COVID-19

The Cameroonian authorities must come clean on the reality of the spread of COVID-19 in the country’s prisons, provide detainees with adequate medical care and stop exacerbating overcrowding with arbitrary arrests, Amnesty International said today.

The organisation confirms that at least one prisoner has tested positive for the virus at the “Kondengui” central prison in Yaoundé and has been taken to a health facility outside the prison. While authorities have not confirmed or denied the presence of the virus in detention facilities, Amnesty International received information stating the number of current and former detainees tested positive could be much higher.

As COVID-19 spreads in Cameroon, it is essential that detainees and their families have access to accurate information about the virus. The poor conditions in detention centres mean they risk becoming epicenters of the pandemic unless urgent action is taken.
Fabien Offner, Amnesty International West and Central Africa researcher.

“As COVID-19 spreads in Cameroon, it is essential that detainees and their families have access to accurate information about the virus. The poor conditions in detention centres mean they risk becoming epicenters of the pandemic unless urgent action is taken.” said Fabien Offner, Amnesty International West and Central Africa researcher.

“Authorities must take all necessary measures to allow those in prison to enjoy standard health-care services free of charge and without discrimination, and to urgently reduce the overall number of people in detention.”

According to the National commission on human rights and freedoms, the occupancy rate was high in many prisons in Cameroon, reaching 432% in Kondengui’’, 729% in Bertoua prison (East), 481% in Sangmelima (South) and 567% in Kumba Main Prison (South-West).

Following a 15 April presidential decree commuting and remitting sentences, hundreds of prisoners have been released in all the regions. For example, 831 prisoners, were released in the Far North region, and the number falling from 3,370 to 2,547 detainees, according to state media. An independent source also confirms to Amnesty International that 214 detainees were released in the Maroua prison (Far North).

While this is a first welcome step in reducing overcrowding in prisons, it remains far from sufficient. Measures to fight the spread of the virus in detention facilities should include the release of detainees who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 such as the elderly or those with underlying medical conditions.

Many inmates are sick in the central prison of Yaoundé’’

Prison conditions are dire in the central prison of Yaoundé. An inmate told Amnesty International:

“Prisoners often die in this prison; no one can really say who is contaminated. Many inmates are sick and because of the congestion everyone is scared. Those who are sick also fear going to the prison health services because of rumours of COVID-19 patients being admitted there”.

Sources told Amnesty International that most inmates who present COVID-19 symptoms are treating themselves using hot liquids mixed with ginger and garlic. Last month, five other deaths have been reported in a week, according to independent sources. A letter sent on 21 April to the Ministry of Justice on behalf of detainees highlighted the persistent overcrowding, describing the nursing station in prisons as "saturated with sick detainees" and the medical staff as overwhelmed.

On 23 April, authorities announced measures aimed at containing the virus inside the central prison in Yaoundé, including the suspension of outside chores, the establishment of observation cells for suspected COVID-19 cases, disinfection operations and the application of barrier gestures.

At least two sick detainees died shortly after their release

According to information received by Amnesty International, at least two sick detainees died shortly after their release. One was buried in conditions applied to COVID-19 deaths without the presence of his family, although no test was made to determine the cause of death.

Even if authorities recently released some detainees, they failed to positively respond to the National commission on human rights and freedoms’ call to release the elderly who are most vulnerable to the virus, and to the UN call to release sick detainees, and those jailed without legal basis, including prisoners of conscience.

Detained prisoners of conscience include Mamadou Mota, vice-president of opposition party MRC, jailed for participating in peaceful protests and for “rebellion in group”. Others include Anglophones detained for protesting peacefully either against the alleged irregularities during the 2018 presidential election or in demand for economic and social rights in English-speaking regions.

Mancho Bibixy Tse is one of them. He was arrested on 9 January 2017 and sentenced on 25 May 2018 by a military court to 15 years in prison for terrorism, simply for having peacefully protested the marginalization of English-speaking Cameroonians.

Sick detainees still jailed include Amadou Vamoulke, 70, former director of state TV, who suffers from a severe pathology certified by two neurologists. He was arrested in July 2016 and has been illegally detained after his pre-trial detention exceeded the legal limit.

Among those detained for speaking out, there is political activist Franck Boumadjieu. He was arbitrarily arrested on 16 April 2020 for having denounced the silence of President Paul Biya since the start of the COVID-19 crisis and was sentenced to three months in prison and fined.

Keeping elderly or sick people in detention or releasing them just to blow their last breath outside is inhumane. Authorities must treat prisoners with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings.
Fabien Offner

“Keeping elderly or sick people in detention or releasing them just to blow their last breath outside is inhumane. Authorities must treat prisoners with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings.” Fabien Offner said.

“Continuing to fill prisons with people who have done nothing but exercising their right to freedom of expression is not only a violation of international law, but is also hampering efforts to contain the virus.” 

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