Somewhere in Cameroon, a young man we will fictitiously call Thomas stole a few electronic devices from a lady's house. Caught by one of the lady's relative, Thomas was severely beaten before being arrested by the police. Here starts the long story of a 16-year-old boy victim of the unadapted and slow Cameroonian judicial system.
Although a minor should never be thrown in prison according to Cameroonian law, Thomas has just celebrated his seventeenth anniversary this week, among his minors inmates, hardly separated from the overcrowded adult cells. Imagine how joyful can a birthday be in a place where even teenagers have to struggle for their daily food. And try to explain why a presumed innocent young man can spend eight months in prison, being called every since and then to attend to the repeated adjournment of his trial.
Thomas' family, back in the village, is lost in the complexity of justice. Not long ago, the complainant proposed to Thomas' father, living modestly from his work as a bricklayer, an amicable settlement: the withdrawal of the complaint for the equivalent of 20$. Hoping to see his son out of the prison as soon as possible, the father gathered his resources to pay what the complainant demanded. It did not bear fruits, given that the woman disappeared with the money, maintaining the judicial proceedings. Since that event, the father was not able to visit his son, lacking money to take the 45-minute ride from his neighborhood to the prison. When an NGO eventually brought him to sign the bail for his son to be released until the beginning of the trial, the file was nowhere to be found in the court registry - "come again tomorrow".
These days, eight months after Thomas' arrest, the officials in charge of the investigations declared the preliminary steps as finished and assigned Thomas' case to a court, cancelling the option of a release on bail. Nevertheless, due to a mistake on their side, Thomas has been committed to trial at the wrong tribunal, the one for adults. The simple transfer of his file to the appropriate court is likely to last for one more month - and then at last, the slow process of a proper trial is going to begin.
How come that a minor can be left on his own in a prison? How can one explain why he and his family have not been informed that there are ways to enforce an amicable settlement which was not respected? Why is legal aid not provided to a family which cannot even afford to pay a visit to its son? By how many weeks can a stupid mistake by an absent-minded civil servant extend somebody's remand? How would a year in prison influence the rest of a teenager's life? As long as these questions are to be asked, the Cameroonian judicial and penitentiary system have a long way to go.
At last, we have reached the midway point in one of our projects! Our aim, until October 2014, is to help men, women, and children in Ekona town receive official documentation, such as marriage, birth, and death certificates, to help make their lives easier in the future. Because of the rural location of Ekona, and lack of a civil status center in the local area, many people lack these documents which are so important to their future wellbeing. Birth Certificates ensure that parents can apply for benefits for their child, and also help the child in question claim inheritance once his or her parents have passed away. Death Certificates are obviously needed to prove that the person in question is actually deceased, so that their closest relatives can inherit from the deceased. Marriage certificates ensure that should a husband die, his widow and children will not lose even more than they already have; by losing their rights to own and work the late husbands land, their home, because they cannot prove their relationship was legalised, something which is sadly a common grievance here in Cameroon.
In the most recent meeting, we met with the couples who wish to take part in a mass marriage we plan to hold here in Ekona (currently involving 22 couples) so that they can get officially married and legally registered on the same day. We talked with a representative of Muyuka Council, who is looking to assist us in possibly waivering a part of the registration fees set by the government, and talked with the nearest Registrar available who informed us what paperwork would be required to allow the mass marriage to take place. With the blessings and well wishes of the local chief, the helpful assistance from the representatives of the state council and the registrar office, and the hard work of the Ekona Womens Group Malingo Women), we hope to have many joyful pictures coming your way soon.
Written by Shona Flaherty, Prisoners' Rights Project International Intern.
Period covered: Mid April to end of June 2014.
Names of participants:
Chamango Blaise Aime: Project Coordinator, Human Is Right
Zenoni Mattia: International Intern from Italy
Gaffuri Riva Michela: International Intern from Italy
Heweyer Megan: International Intern from Canada
Human Is Right acknowledges with gratitude the unconditional support of the Buea central Prison superintendent as well all his staff especially the records office towards the success of the activities. Most importantly, Human Is Right congratulates and thanks all the prisoners who participated in the interviewing process.
Human Is Right seeks to address and improve Cameroon's most pressing Human Rights Issues. Chiefly: corruption, abuse of prisoner's rights, gender inequality, civil liberty deficiencies and lack of access to efficient and effective justice.
Human Is Rights lives to ensure the promotion and protection of the rights of prisoners in Cameroon through advocacy, public education and awareness creation, membership capacity building and partnership-building with Government, Civil Society organizations, development partners and with prisoners themselves. It takes its broad mandate from the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, other international instruments on Human Rights and the Constitution of Cameroon.
METHODOLOGY AND PROCESS
The activity was carried out through the administration of questionnaire to inmates under the supervision of prison warders. Some family members were called to provide additional information to complements information gathered from the prisoners.
Human IS Right through the unconditional collaboration and support of the prison superintendent was granted authorisation to interview prisoners in the records office of the prison. The chief of the records office, Mr Ngafeeson was assigned to provide HISR's team all necessary support to carry out the activities which he did very well.
Our interest focused on cases of six prisoners on pre-trial detention for longer than six months and who have not being to court.
From our findings, we were able to identify two suitable cases for Habeas Corpus; the cases of K. E. and M. F. With the support of our pro bono partner Barrister Njilla Stephen, we will file in court habeas corpus on behalf of them on grounds of illegality of their detention. We aim to do same for the other detainees we interviewed after we must have carry out more findings to ensure that they make good cases for habeas corpus. Our work will involve more cases of long awaiting trial and to encourage the judiciary to take quick action regarding cases of detainees.
The Human IS Right team has been hard at work working on our two projects!
Prisoner's Rights Project
A lot of progress has been made on this project! We were ready to submit a habeas corpus application for one prisoner but the other day he told us that he was granted free bail! We are working on contacting someone from his family to come and sign for him and we will continue to monitor his situation in case something arises that we can help with. We have been working on a number of habeas corpus applications for prisoners. We do this for detainees whose imprisonment we believe is unlawful. Many factors are used to determine this such as their length of time in prison without conviction, the last time they went to court, how the arrest was handled and if or their family has ever paid a bribe to a prison official. We are still in the beginning phases of this as we are trying to interview many prisoners to build a database of cases for our network of pro bono lawyers to select from.
We are almost done interviewing all of the minors incarcerated inside the Buea Central Prison. With this aspect of the project we are finding cases suitable for habeas corpus as well as cases that may be able to be transferred to the Borstal Institute here in Buea. The Borstal is an institution where people under the age of 18 can go with the intention to be rehabilitated away from adult prisoners and under better living conditions. Only juveniles who have not committed a felony such as murder or rape are allowed to go here.
Gender Equality Project
This project is also moving along, but at a bit of a slower pace! We are currently looking for a local volunteer who can take the lead position for this project. Interns always come and go so we need someone who is here long term and can really get into the project. We are also looking for international interns as Megan, the intern currently working on this initiative, is leaving in 1.5 months!
2 weeks ago Megan went around Ekona with 2 local women to different social groups who gather on Sundays. She spoke to the groups about Human IS Right and about our current initiative of helping people get civil registration in the form of marriage, birth or death certificates. Our main focus is the marriage certificates which we plan to do through a large collective marriage in the coming weeks. As many as 90% of couples in Cameroon do not have official marriage certificates which can potentially pose major land and financial problems. If anything problems were to arise in the relationship or the husband passes away, the woman has no legal right to any land or financial assets they shared since they are almost always under the man's name.
We hope to do this same initiative in Tole but we are still having difficulties with social mobilization and getting people interested in the project. It has been very difficult and frustrating at times, but we will continue to work hard and make this project a success!!
It is one month that we, as Human is Right's legal team, can go to the prison interviewing the detainees: now we are bringing on three different projects, inside the prisoner's rights one, analyzing women, minors and long awaiting trial detainees situation. Our job is going on in a good way and for that we have to thank the prison staff, who gives us a place where we can do our job, and our project coordinator, Blaise Chamango, who is always available to clarify our doubts.
Since we are at the beginning of our NGO's job it could seem that there are no concrete results, but we truly believe that ours is a long term job and now the most important thing is to put stable basis for the future: that is why we have prepared specified questionnaires for the three different categories of detainees with peculiar question and, always thank to our project coordinator, we are meeting everyday other organizations and associations we can work with.
Even if we are a small NGO, we are sure that our job will give important results: our aim is not our personal glory, but it is contributing to better the judicial machinery in rendering justice within a very period, so that we can give a contribution for solving the problem of the slowness and improve on the quality of service delivery by public authorities in charge to administer justice.
Article written by Mattia Zenoni