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Cameroon

These girls escaped Boko Haram, now they face lengthy jail terms in Cameroon

Martha Weteya, Marie Dawandala, and Damaris Doukouya (from left to right) at the Mokolo Prison
Martha Weteya, Marie Dawandala, and Damaris Doukouya (from left to right) at the Mokolo Prison © Images courtesy of ECPM

Three women, who were arrested on suspicion of belonging to the Boko Haram jihadist group, were on a retrial in Cameroon this Friday on charges of espionage. The case, which dates back to 2014, was deferred to 24 July for the fourth time in the absence of the head judge. The women have been in custody for over five years.

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The prisoners are Marie Dawandala, Damaris Doukouya and Martha Weteya.

When they left their home village in northern Cameroon six years ago in search of a better life, they could not have imagined that they would later end up behind bars.

In 2014, the women, aged 17 at the time, had crossed the Nigerian border with their husbands to work as domestic servants.

It was at the height of the Boko Haram insurgency, marked by the notorious kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from the Nigerian town of Chibok.

As the insurgent attacks increased, the three women were forced to flee back across the border, like countless others to find safety.

Upon their return, they were arrested by Cameroonian authorities, accused of belonging to the same militant group they had narrowly fled.

"They ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time" - Marie-Lina Samuel, Africa Project Coordinator at ECPM (Together Against the Death Penalty)

Trial of three girls who fled Boko Haram

Wrong place, wrong time

"They were in the wrong place at the wrong time," explains Marie-Lina Samuel, Africa Project Coordinator at the organisation ECPM (Together Against the Death Penalty).  

"If they [Cameroonian authorities] could have taken someone else, they would have taken someone else. They were there, not by mistake, because they were running away from Boko Haram. But they were there when the Cameroonian authorities decided to take what they thought were terrorists," she told RFI.

During 2014, Boko Haram extended armed attacks into northern Cameroon, sparking a ground campaign from the Cameroonian military.

The spill-over saw combatants and Nigerians pour into Cameroon's north, leading to a wave of arbitrary arrests of alleged Boko Haram supporters.

"Between 2014 and 2016, more than 200 people were sentenced to death after very speedy trials, without meeting a lawyer or sometimes even having a legal representation," says Samuel.

"They would enter the court, say two words and be sentenced to death."

This is what happened to Martha, Marie and Damaris in April 2016.

Wrong language

Brought before Maroua’s military tribunal, they were charged with espionage, conspiracy to commit insurrection, and membership in an armed gang. All three were given the death penalty. None of them understood why. 

The pre-trial investigation had been conducted entirely in French, a language none of them spoke.

"Everything happened around them and about them without them understanding what was happening and what was at stake," comments Samuel, denouncing the absence of a fair trial.

"When they were sentenced to death, none of them understood. It was their prison warden later on who informed them," she said.

French remains the official language of Cameroon's administration, which has often left many English-speakers feeling marginalised. The language problem is at the root of the country's anglophone crisis that has triggered deadly protests in the north west and south west of the country, including several arrests for espionage.

Unlike separatists however, "these women did nothing to threaten the state," insists Samuel, pointing to the lack of evidence against them.

Death penalty quashed

In 2019, recognising that it lacked jurisdiction over minors, the military tribunal quashed the women’s death sentences.

Their legal battle, which had begun three years earlier, should have ended there. But it didn't. The public prosecutor decided to retry the women before a civilian court. That retrial scheduled for Friday 26 June was eventually postponed until 24 July.

According to sources, the head judge failed to show up and the investigating judge decided it was too sensitive a matter to take up himself.

Where does that leave the three women?

In limbo, argues Samuel. "They have been in prison now for over five years. Two of them have children and have had to bring them up in very difficult conditions."

The Covid-19 outbreak has put additional strain, forcing the mothers to hand their children over to a religious group to limit transmission of the virus.

"They hope that getting their children back will not be another struggle," confides Samuel, who hopes their legal woes will come to an end now that they have a "better qualified" defence lawyer.

"So far it has been injustice after injustice," she admits. "I guess for the moment we just have to wait and see what happens."

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