Cameroon’s High Court refused to release opposition leader Maurice Kamto, as well as six of his supporters, who were arrested in January on politically motivated charges.
The Mfoundi High Court, located in Cameroon’s political capital, Yaoundé, made this decision following a habeas corpus request filed by the detainees’ defence lawyers.
Kamto and his party, the Cameroon Renaissance Movement (CRM), claim they won the country’s 2018 elections, although the official results say the current President Paul Biya – in power for 36 years – won the vote.
They were detained as a part of a massive government crackdown on demonstrations and political activities, including the arrest over 200 people on January 26. Since then, political activists have been regularly threatened and harassed.
Kamto and his six supporters are charged with a number of offenses linked to their rejection of the election results, including hostility against the homeland and threats to public order and rebellion.
These arrests highlight the tightening political space in Cameroon as well as the impunity with which police can disregard the law.
Kamto was arrested without a warrant on January 28 in Douala and held for 15 days at the headquarters of the Special Operations Groups (Groupement spécial d’opérations, GSO), which is not gazetted as a detention facility for those awaiting trial.
Célestin Djamen, a member of Kamto’s party, was arrested at the hospital where he was recovering after police shot him in the leg during a January 26 demonstration. He was held for 15 days at the Secrétariat d'Etat à la Défense (SED) which also is not meant to hold people in police custody.
Lawyers for Kamto say that they were unable to access their client for two days, in violation of the Cameroonian law. A lawyer for Djamen said he did not see his client for 15 days.
Kamto and the other detainees were only presented before the prosecutor 15 days after their arrest, in violation of the Cameroon Criminal Procedure Code. Moreover, despite being civilians, they are being tried in a military court. This means there are real questions about the legality of the court itself.
These arrests appear to be a politically motivated move to curtail dissent, and what’s happened so far calls into questions Kamto’s ability to get a fair trial. Cameroonians – political opponents or not – should be able to expect that officials will uphold the law, not flagrantly violate it.