A Nigerian court has condemned as "illegal and unconstitutional" the arrest and deportation of Cameroonian separatists who had applied for asylum in Nigeria, the lawyers representing them said Sunday.
In January 2018, Nigeria arrested and deported 47 anglophone separatists who had fled Cameroon following a crackdown by the authorities.
The move was denounced by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, which said most of them had filed asylum claims and accused Nigeria of breaching international agreements.
"Justice Chikere declared the arrest and detention of the 12 applicants illegal," said a statement from Nigerian law firm Falana & Falana, referring to a ruling issued this week in the capital Abuja.
"Consequently, Justice Chikere declared the deportation of the applicants illegal and unconstitutional, awarded (compensation) to each of them and ordered the federal government to ensure that they are brought back to Nigeria forthwith."
Among the 12 claimants was separatist leader Julius Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, president of the self-declared "Republic of Ambazonia", who was arrested along with his supporters on January 9 by Nigerian intelligence agents.
The group was sent back to Cameroon on January 26, and Ayuk Tabe was put on trial for "terrorism" in December at a military court in Yaounde, Cameroon's capital.
At the hearing, defence lawyer Femi Falana argued that the arrest and detention of refugees and asylum seekers constituted a breach of Nigeria's constitution and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.
The judge agreed, saying the expulsion of the group was in "utter violation" of legal obligations which ban Nigeria "from expelling or deporting refugees" from the country.
And he ordered the government to ensure they were brought back to Nigeria, and that their fundamental rights be respected.
Since their deportation, the 47 have been held in secret at a high-security facility at police headquarters in Yaounde.
Clashes between the armed forces and separatists take place almost daily in the two Anglophone regions on the western flank of Cameroon, where resentment at perceived marginalisation by the French-speaking majority boiled over into an armed uprising in late 2016, prompting a harsh government crackdown.