Cameroonian lawyers are on strike this week, protesting law enforcement agencies' interference in their work and violations of defendants' rights.
In a communique issued on August 31, the Cameroon Bar Council explained that the lawyers decided to stage the five-day strike because of what they describe as systematic denial of access to their clients in detention facilities across the country, including the State Defense Secretariat (SED) detention facility in Yaoundé. The lawyers are also protesting authorities' alleged refusal to acknowledge or respond to their various written requests, the prolonged and unlawful detention of their clients, and the extraction of confessions under torture. The lawyers further claim in the letter that they are "continuously being threatened, arrested and detained" while trying to do their work.
Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the widespread use of incommunicado detention and torture at SED, as well other violations of due process rights. A military court recently handed down a life sentence to the leaders of a separatist group following a trial in which the defendants were not able to exercise their right to effectively defend themselves.
The strike occurs about a month after inmates in Yaoundé's Central Prison rioted in protest against abysmal living conditions and trial delays. Following the riot, Cameroonian authorities held over 100 detainees incommunicado for almost 2 weeks at SED. Many of them were tortured.
One lawyer told us, "This is our way to say no to the abuse and the denial of basic rights."
Lawyers always have a critical role to play in protecting the rights of suspects in custody and defendants in court, and their role in protecting human rights is fundamental in the context of the current crackdown in Cameroon. They should be allowed to carry out their jobs safely, without undue interference, and freely access their clients in custody in order to protect their rights and prepare their defense. This strike should ring alarm bells over the lawyers' inability to do so and the violations of detainees' basic rights.