YAOUNDE (Reuters) – Dozens of activists from Cameroon’s English-speaking community were freed from jail on Friday as the mainly French-speaking nation’s president moved to ease months of tension in its minority regions.
President Paul Biya on Wednesday ordered a military court to drop its prosecution of the detainees, who were arrested following protests launched late last year by anglophones demanding equal treatment.
Around 50 were released from two prisons in the capital Yaounde after midnight. Watched by security forces, a crowd of family members and journalists gathered outside to greet the activists, who then boarded buses that took them home.
“I was in jail for five months. My mother couldn’t visit me,” said one freed detainee, who asked not to be named. “I‘m innocent. I was arrested when I went out to see a gathering of leaders …I was just getting by. Now I have nothing left.”
Among others freed were civil society leaders Felix Agbor Balla and Fontem Aforteka‘a Neba, arrested in January and being held under anti-terrorism laws enacted in response to incursions in the country’s north by Islamist militant group Boko Haram.
The pair – who pleaded not guilty in February to charges that included complicity in hostility against the homeland, secession and civil war – had faced a potential death sentence if convicted.
Their case added fuel to the long-standing opposition in the North-West and South-West regions against President Biya’s francophone-dominated government, which has responded to unrest there with a crackdown.
Biya’s office said the decision to release the detainees reflected the president’s resolve to find a “peaceful solution to crises”.
But an easing of tensions did not appear imminent as others, including well-known radio broadcaster Mancho Bibixy, remained in jail with their cases due to be reviewed at the end of this month.
“Bibixy and the others were only expressing what they thought. They didn’t kill anyone,” Calvin Tah Ndangoh, his lawyer, told Reuters. “We do not know for sure why he wasn’t released.”
Anglophone activists have called for a boycott of the start of the new school year next week.
In response, around 1,000 paramilitary police, including 400 reinforcements, were deployed in the two volatile regions due to the “persistent threat of activists” in a security operation due to last 128 days.
Additional reporting by Anne-Mireille Nzouankeu; Writing by Joe Bavier; editing by John Stonestreet