A military court in Cameroon has sentenced the leaders of the ‘Ambazonia’ to life imprisonment after an all-night court sitting.
Julius Sisiku Ayuk Tabe and his cabinet of nine were convicted of charges including terrorism and secession and given a fine of 250 billion FCFA ($350m).
The separatist leaders sang protest songs as the sentence was handed down in the early hours of Tuesday, August 20 at about 5:30 am.
The severity of the sentence has raised fears that the bloody conflict playing out in Cameroon’s anglophone regions between separatist rebels and military forces will be prolonged, and that no ceasefire will be possible.
In January 2018, Ayuk Tabe was arrested with 46 other separatists in a hotel in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, allegedly by Nigerian special forces.
They were then handed over to Cameroon – a move that was ruled illegal by a Nigerian court in March this year.
The defendants refused to recognise the right of the military tribunal in Yaounde to try them. Their lawyers are meeting to draft an appeal, which has to be filed within ten days.
Felix Agbor Balla, a leading human rights advocate in Cameroon, described the decision as a sham which would cause a lot of anger among anglophones.
He said: “Sentencing Sisiku Ayuk Tabe and co will not solve the problems we have in Cameroon. It will instead aggravate the problem.”
Ayuk Tabe, 54, was the first self-proclaimed president of “Ambazonia” – a breakaway state declared in October 2017 in two English-speaking regions of the central African country.
The government responded with a military crackdown.
Nearly 2,000 people are thoughts to have died, and 530,000 have fled their homes.
One of the defence lawyers, Christopher Ngong, said they had asked for the military judge to be recused and had walked out of the hearings in protest at the judge’s decision to continue the case.
He said the court had prearranged the ruling.
Ngong said: “Since they had a hidden agenda, that they were going to pass judgment at all costs, so they went on with the matter, despite the fact that the accused persons were singing songs in court.”
With thousands of children in the crisis-hit areas out of education for several years, the government has been trying to promote a back-to-school campaign.
Many anglophone Cameroonians think this will be jeopardised by the court’s decision and expect the president, Paul Biya, to issue a pardon for the leaders.