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A screenshot of the video showing soldiers taking a woman and a child to the place where they would be later killed in Zelevet, Far North region, Cameroon, 2015. © 2018 BBC Africa Eye 

(Nairobi) – On September 21, a military court in Cameroon sentenced 4 soldiers to 10 years in prison and 1 other to 2 years for the brutal killing of 2 women and 2 children in 2015. While the sentence breaks the norm of impunity for military abuses, the potential impact of the trial in setting accountability standards was compromised because the trial and sentencing took place behind closed doors and lacked transparency.

“Denying the public access to the trial is a breach of due process for the defendants, but also deprives the public of vital knowledge about and understanding of the trial,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s not just a breach of international standards, but of a duty to the public to enable them have confidence in the rule of law by seeing justice done.”

The 2015 executions, carried out by the soldiers in the village of Zelevet in Cameroon’s Far North region, were captured in a video that went viral in early July 2018. Seven soldiers who had been part of one of the many security operations against the Islamist armed group Boko Haram were ultimately put on trial. Five were found guilty on August 17, 2020 by a Yaoundé military court. The court ruled that two soldiers who had appeared in the video were not guilty, as “they watched the scene as others did the killings.” The lawyer of one of those convicted announced that he intends to appeal.

The seven soldiers were charged with joint participation in murder, breach of regulations, and conspiracy. Their trial started in August 2019, but holding it behind closed doors and not allowing national or international scrutiny of the proceedings casts doubts about the trial’s fairness. The court’s reasoning is unclear, as judicial authorities did not make any information about the trial public. A lawyer who had access to the case file told Human Rights Watch: “We have no idea as to what guided the judges on this verdict. We do not know what elements the court did or did not take into account.”

A civil suit on behalf of the victims’ families, allowed in military courts in Cameroon, was not filed.

The video showing the killing was initially dismissed as “fake news” by Cameroon’s communications minister. But a forensic analysis established that it was authentic and that the military was responsible for the killings. Cameroonian authorities later announced that the seven soldiers depicted in the video had been arrested and would be prosecuted.

Cameroon’s armed forces have been repeatedly implicated in other serious crimes since the 2015 killings, and the government’s reaction has been to deny responsibility. In February 2020, Cameroonian soldiers killed 21 civilians in the village of Ngarbuh, in the North West region, in a reprisal attack aimed at punishing the population, whom the security forces accused of sheltering armed separatists. The government initially denied that the soldiers committed any crimes. However, officials later admitted that soldiers bore some responsibility for the killings and ordered the arrest of three members of the security forces.

Cameroonian security forces have committed widespread human rights violations and crimes in their counterinsurgency operations against Boko Haram in the Far North region, including extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, incommunicado detention, systematic torture, deaths in custody, forced return of refugees, and forced labor.

“Courts should explain and defend how they reached their verdict and justify the rationale for the sentences they hand down,” Mudge said. “If Cameroonian authorities are to make meaningful efforts to ensure accountability for abuses against civilians and end impunity, proceedings have to be transparent and should be before civilian courts.”

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