A military court in Cameroon has convicted Ahmed Abba, a journalist for Radio France Internationale’s Hausa service, on charges of “non-denunciation of terrorism” and “laundering of the proceeds of terrorist acts”, according to his lawyer and employer.
Abba’s lawyer, Clement Nakong, told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that Abba, who has been jailed since July 2015 in relation to his reporting on the regional armed group Boko Haram, could face the death penalty on the first charge and a maximum of five years in prison on the second charge at a sentencing hearing scheduled for April 24.
Nakong said Abba would appeal to have the conviction overturned.
Radio France Internationale reported that the military tribunal acquitted the journalist of the charge of “apologising for acts of terrorism”.
The CPJ called on Cameroonian authorities to release Abba without delay and not to contest the journalist’s appeal.
“The military court’s conviction of Cameroonian radio journalist Ahmed Abba on terrorism charges that could carry the death penalty is an outrage,” Robert Mahoney, CPJ deputy executive director, said in a press release.
“Covering terrorism as a reporter must not be equated with committing acts of terror. Each day Abba spends behind bars is a travesty of justice.”
Abba told the CPJ through a proxy in January: “This is an unfair trial. I have never been told who I know that I did not denounce, or who are my accomplices,.
“I could get justice in a civil court, maybe, but not in a military court. Right now I don’t know my fate.”
Battle with Boko Haram
A controversial anti-terrorism law in 2014 reintroduced the death penalty. Cameroon has not carried out an execution since 1997, according to Amnesty International.
Cameroon has remained in a protracted battle with the Boko Haram since 2014 when the fighters began attacking the government.
The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, reports that there have been no fewer than 460 attacks and scores of suicide bombings leading to at least 15,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons.
Rights groups have criticised what they describe as an increasingly repressive climate for press freedom in Cameroon.
In recent months, authorities have arrested journalists covering protests, suspended dozens of newspapers and broadcasters permission to operate, permanently banned three newspapers from publishing and their publishers from practicing journalism and sanctioned dozens more journalists.
The speaker of the National Assembly in November called the use of social media “a new form of terrorism”.
The government cut the internet to the Anglophone region in January after protests against the predominantly French-speaking government of President Paul Biya.
Cameroon’s government said on Thursday that it had restored the internet access to the affected regions.
“It seems that the conditions that preceded the suspension of the internet to that part of the national territory have much changed,” Issa Tchiroma, Cameroon’s communications minister, said in a statement.
“The head of state therefore instructs the [communications] minister … to re-establish internet connections in the northwest and southwest regions.”
Cameroonian forces have cracked down on protests in the English-speaking region that erupted last October, beating and arresting protesters, some of whom face the death penalty in military courts – under the same anti-terrorism law used to prosecute the journalist Ahmed Abba.
“The anti-terror law is being used to curtail dissent and that infringes on the basic rights and freedoms in the constitution,” Ilaria Allegrozzi, of the Amnesty International, told Reuters in February.
The unrest has exposed national divisions between the regions of Cameroon that were historically colonised by the French and the British.
At least six protesters have been shot dead and hundreds others arrested during the rare challenge to state authority, prompting criticism from human rights groups.
Activists had condemned the internet shutdown as a form of collective punishment.
At the end of World War I, the League of Nations divided the former German colony of Kamerun between the allied French and British victors.
After independence in 1960, voters from the smaller English-speaking zone opted to join Cameroon rather than neighbouring Nigeria, but they have often felt marginalised by the Francophone government in Yaounde.