Yaounde – Human Rights Watch on Friday derided as a “sham” a trial which saw four men sentenced to death for killing seven school children in a separatist anglophone province of Cameroon.
The seven, aged nine to 12, died last October 24 when a dozen men on motorbikes stormed a school at Kumba, in the South-West region, and fired on pupils.
A dozen others suffered gunshot and machete injuries.
On September 7, a military court in the provincial capital Buea ruled four of the accused – portrayed by the prosecution as anglophone separatists – should face a public firing squad after finding them guilty of terrorism and secession as well as illegal possession of arms.
Others sentenced to short jail terms and fines for allegedly not reporting a threat against the school included four teachers.
HRW criticised the use of a military court to try civilians at a trial “marred by serious procedural irregularities” including the right of the accused to present evidence in their own defence.
“Victims of the Kumba massacre have a right to expect an effective investigation, and for those responsible to be brought to justice in a fair trial,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, HRW senior Africa researcher.
“Instead, Cameroonian authorities seem to have railroaded people into a sham trial before a military tribunal, with a predetermined outcome, capped with the imposition of the death penalty which is unlawful under international human rights law,” Allegrozzi said.
“The entire trial was predicated upon circumstantial evidence as opposed to real evidence, and throughout the trial, the prosecution brought no witness we could ask questions,” HRW quoted leading defence counsel Atoh Walter Chemi as saying.
Defence lawyers say the accused were held for more than 30 days without charge in violation of the law.
There were no claims of responsibility for the killings, but the government blamed armed separatists demanding an education boycott in English-speaking Anglophone regions.
The defence ministry, which oversees Cameroon’s military courts, did not respond to AFP requests for comment.
Those condemned to death remain in detention, one of their lawyers, Walters Atoh, said. He said he had begun the appeals process which “would normally suspend sentence being carried out”.
Several death sentences have been handed out during the four-year separatist conflict but none has been carried out in Cameroon for more than 20 years.
Cameroon’s Southwest and neighbouring Northwest regions are home to English-speakers comprising about a fifth of Cameroon’s 22 million people and who say they suffer unequal treatment, notably in education and before the law.
A decades-long campaign by militants to redress perceived discrimination at the hands of the francophone majority flared into a declaration of independence on October 1, 2017, sparking a crackdown which has claimed more than 3,500 lives and forced 700 000 people to flee their homes.
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