(Nairobi) – The trial of 21 people accused of involvement in the killings of 21 civilians in Ngarbuh, in Cameroon’s North-West region, on February 14, 2020, has dragged on for 14 months, Human Rights Watch said today. The slow pace raises concerns about the justice system’s efficiency and ability to deliver justice to the victims. The lack of progress is compounded by the limited opportunity for access and participation by victims’ families, the lack of probative witnesses, and the fact that senior officers with command responsibility have not been arrested or charged. The only witnesses so far did not see the killings and claimed the victims were separatist fighters.
“When the trial started, it was welcomed as a step toward justice and tackling impunity for military abuses in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But two years after the massacre, victims and their families are still awaiting justice, while security forces have continued to commit serious human rights violations.”
The Ngarbuh killings were one of the Cameroonian security forces’ worst atrocities since the crisis in the country’s Anglophone regions began in late 2016. The government initially denied that its security forces were responsible. But following international pressure, President Paul Biya established a commission of inquiry on March 1, 2020. The government then admitted that its security forces bear some responsibility and announced the arrest of two soldiers and a gendarme in June 2020.
Human Rights Watch research concluded that government forces and armed ethnic Fulani killed 21 civilians in Ngarbuh, including 13 children and a pregnant woman, burned five homes, looted scores of other properties, and beat residents in a reprisal operation against the community suspected of harboring separatist fighters. Ethnic Fulani living in and around Ngarbuh are also known as “Mbororo” and are mainly pastoralists.
The Ngarbuh trial started on December 17, 2020, before the military court in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, and has had 15 sessions. The next is scheduled for February 17, 2022. The defendants include two soldiers: a sergeant and a first-class soldier of the 52nd Motorized Infantry Battalion (Battalion d’intervention motorisé, BIM), a gendarme, a former separatist fighter, and 17 ethnic-Fulani vigilantes, who remain at large. They have been charged with murder, arson, destruction, violence against a pregnant woman, and disobeying orders.
The court is about 450 kilometers from Ngarbuh, making it difficult for family members of victims to attend. Family members’ lawyers expressed concern about the issue in March 2021. Since then, only two relatives of victims have testified before the court.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, has said that “all investigations must be prompt, impartial, thorough and transparent” and that failure “transparently to take all necessary measures to investigate suspicious deaths and all killings by [s]tate agents and to identify and hold accountable individuals or groups responsible for violations of the right to life constitutes in itself a violation by the [s]tate of that right.”
Under international standards, including the United Nations Minnesota Protocol on the Investigation of Potentially Unlawful Death and jurisprudence from human rights bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights, for an effective investigation to be transparent, victims and their families need to have reasonable access.
Lawyers for the victims and their families told Human Rights Watch that sections 177 and 189 of Cameroon’s Criminal Procedure Code provide the possibility that a magistrate could go to Ngarbuh and collect testimony from witnesses. But instead, lawyers said, courts have used section 336 of the Criminal Procedure Code to allow criminal proceedings to be heard and determined without witnesses present.
International standards also require an effective investigation to identify and collect evidence from probative witnesses, to take all feasible steps to identify and locate those allegedly involved in the crime, and to hold to account all those responsible, such as those with command responsibility.
Instead, family members’ lawyers said that the prosecution has presented testimony from people who did not witness the killings and whose testimony is at odds with witness accounts provided during the preliminary investigation, as well as reports on the massacre by the United Nations and local and international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch.
“Testimonies of administrative and military authorities, who serve as prosecution witnesses in this case, try to show that those killed in Ngarbuh were separatist fighters and not civilians,” said Barrister Menkem Sother, one of the family members’ lawyers. “It looks like the goal of the investigation will be to show that the Cameroon security forces only killed separatist fighters in Ngarbuh, and that the killing of any civilians was the work of vigilantes.”
The judicial authorities also appear to have made no effort to locate the accused vigilantes. According to family members’ lawyers, investigators had the telephone number and location of at least one vigilante, but apparently made no attempt to trace and apprehend him or to explain why they didn’t.
In the Anglophone regions, vigilantes work in tangent with local authorities and security forces and receive material support from the government in the form of motorcycles, first aid kits, flashlights, and metal detectors. As a result, the sub-divisional officers, including the one in Ndu, which includes Ngarbuh, should normally have a list of the vigilantes working in their areas.
The prosecution strategy also omits accountability for the authorities who had direct supervision over the suspects and the units and personnel who conducted the military operation in Ngarbuh. This includes the commander of the 52nd BIM, who acknowledged that he authorized a reconnaissance operation to Ngarbuh, and the Ndu sub-divisional officer. The 17 vigilantes would have been operating under his supervision. According to family members’ lawyers, the suspects all stated that the operation in Ngarbuh had been authorized by the Commander of the 52nd BIM and the Ndu sub-prefect.
Lawyers for the victims also said that the judge in charge of the case also sits on the court of appeals, to which complaints about the trial and requests for review will be referred. “If the parties are not satisfied with the judgment and the case is referred to the appeals court, the review will be carried out by the same judge,” said Barrister Richard Tamfu, one of the family members’ lawyers. This is a blatant violation of the right to appeal to an impartial tribunal. As set out in the Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance in Africa, judicial impartiality is compromised if “a judicial official sits as member of an appeal tribunal in a case which he or she decided or participated in a lower judicial body.”
As the trial goes on, Cameroonian security forces continue to commit serious crimes in the Anglophone regions, underscoring a climate of impunity that has fueled the crisis in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions for the past five years. Armed separatist groups have also committed abuses, including killings, kidnappings, torture, and widespread attacks on education. This highlights the urgent need for effective investigations that meet international standards into all serious abuses.
“The lack of justice for the killings of civilians in Ngarbuh and the recurring military abuses are avoidable consequences of the failure to ensure effective investigations and prosecutions,” Allegrozzi said. “Cameroonian authorities should rein in their security forces, ensure an end to abuses, and guarantee that those most responsible for the Ngarbuh killings, as well as other serious abuses, are held to account in fair and effective trials.”