Libreville – Three Cameroonian students sentenced to 10 years in jail for making jokes about jihadist group Boko Haram have been released, Amnesty International said on Monday.
Rights groups and trade unions have frequently denounced the treatment of journalists and declining press freedoms in Cameroon under strongman President Paul Biya, who has led the central African nation since 1982.
A military tribunal convicted Fomusoh Ivo Feh, Afuh Nivelle Nfor and Azah Levis Gob for “non-denunciation of terrorist-related information” in November 2016 after they shared a sarcastic text message about Boko Haram on their phones.
The students, who had been in detention since January 2015, were released at the weekend after the central African country’s supreme court reduced their sentences to five years, Amnesty said.
“These three students who were only exercising their right to freedom of expression should never have been arrested in the first place,” Amnesty said in a statement.
“Cameroon’s authorities should protect human rights and ensure all people can speak freely without fear of reprisal.”
In late 2014, one of the students received a text message from a friend saying Boko Haram recruited young people if they had passed at least four exam subjects.
He sent it on, and it was eventually seen by a teacher who confiscated a phone and showed it to the police.
Nigeria-based Boko Haram has carried out attacks in Cameroon’s far north for years, killing thousands and displacing millions in Nigeria and Cameroon.
Amnesty said the students were “punished against all logic simply for sharing a joke on their phone”.
The group added that the message “was intended as a comment on the difficulty of finding a good job without being highly qualified”.
Amnesty said more than 310 000 people joined their campaign to free the students by writing to Biya.
The students’ release comes after another Cameroonian journalist left prison earlier this month.
Emmanuel Mbombog Mbog Matip spent 16 months behind bars after the authorities accused him of “spreading fake news” while investigating two high-profile officials.
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