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In September 2019, prominent Cameroonian Anglophone peace activist Abdul Karim Ali was arrested. He was held without access to a lawyer for five days before authorities finally released him weeks later. But history has a sad way of repeating itself in Cameroon, where Ali has once again been detained.

Abdul Karim Ali speaking at a conference in Toronto, Canada, March 2020. © Private

On August 11, soldiers arrested Ali in Ntamulung neighborhood in Bamenda, North-West region, and took him to the local gendarmerie station. He was not allowed to see family members until August 13 when, following sustained pressure from his lawyers, authorities allowed his wife to visit.

Ali’s lawyers told Human Rights Watch they were not permitted to view his file and that he was questioned in their absence, in violation of Cameroonian law. While there are no official charges against Ali, he was told he is accused of “apology of terrorism” for possessing a video on his phone showing alleged human rights abuses committed by a Cameroonian soldier against civilians in the country’s English-speaking regions.

Ali’s lawyers said he is being detained in deplorable conditions, in a six-square-meter cell without windows, a toilet, or mattresses. He shares the cell with 12 other detainees.

Arbitrary detention and mistreatment of detainees are rife in Cameroon. Many people perceived as opposing the government are held on bogus charges related to national security or terrorism. Following his arrest in 2019, Ali was taken to the State Defense Secretariat (Secrétariat d’État à la défense, SED), a notorious detention facility in the capital, Yaoundé, where Human Rights Watch has documented widespread use of torture. Ali was held incommunicado until his whereabouts were finally made public in September 2019 when he appeared before the Yaoundé Military Court and was charged with acts of terrorism, financing terrorism, and secession. He was released on November 1, 2019.

Jailing Ali instead of working with him is a missed opportunity for the government, said Barrister Awah Joseph Fru, one of Ali’s lawyers. “Arresting a peace advocate stifles an environment for genuine dialogue,” he told me.

Authorities should clarify Ali’s status and respect his rights. Possessing videos of soldiers allegedly committing abuse is not a crime. Unless he is promptly brought before a judge and charged with a genuine offense, he should be released and allowed to continue his work.

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