More than 120 lawyers in Cameroon crowded into a Yaounde courtroom in support of a colleague who faces the death penalty on charges connected with his human rights activities, following his January arrest as leader of the Anglophone Civil Society Consortium.
Despite the political tensions between them, both Anglophone and Francophone attorneys showed their solidarity on behalf of Nkongho Felix Agbor-Balla, whose trial began Monday.
Agbor-Balla and his consortium co-leader Dr. Fontem Neba were arrested at the same time that President Paul Biya and his government outlawed the group, amid escalating violence over longstanding divisions in the French and English speaking parts of Cameroon that arise in part from the colonial legacy of the West African nation. Since October, the Anglophone movement has been met with detentions, interference with journalists and Internet access, and multiple reported deaths.
A third Anglophone activist, Mancho Bibixy, also pleaded not guilty. He was arrested after making a public speech in November, as the movement to improve Anglophone courts and schools spread to a wider society seeking to address the political and social marginalization they say they experience.
Agbor-Balla appeared at the military tribunal on charges of fomenting revolution, incitement to civil war and “hostilities against the Fatherland,” all charges that the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) say are serious and alarming. The London-based global organization also expressed concern over the fairness of Agbor-Balla’s trial, citing the rule of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights that forbids military courts to have jurisdiction over civilian activities.
Agbor-Balla, the IBAHRI notes, has formerly served as a United Nations legal adviser in Afghanistan and Congo. He is founder and executive director of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, and a graduate of an American university that is actively seeking intervention from the United Nations and Amnesty International on Agbor-Balla’s behalf.
The next hearing for all three candidates is expected on March 23.
Image: CCLA File