The Yaounde military tribunal in Yaounde has ruled the ten detained Ambazonia leaders standing trial all hold Cameroonian nationality though with refugee and and asylum-seeking status and should be judged in Cameroon.
The ruling was passed on Wednesday February 20 after both the prosecution and the defense counsel were both given the opportunities to show proof of the status’ of the accused.
A ruling that did not satisfy the defense counsel whose request to appeal the decision was turned down by the judge Col. Mem Michel who rather ordered for hearing to start.
This did not sit down well with the defense counsel as the lawyers decided to stage a walkout insisting they will appeal the ruling before the Mfoundi High Court before any hearing can start.
With the proceeding hitting a snag as the lawyers walked out, the judge had no option but to adjourn the matter to March 7 hoping the defense counsel must have come back to their « senses ».
How it all started
On a day that was set aside to determine the status and nationalities of the accused, hearing started at 12:37 (37 minutes late) with the presiding magistrate colonel Mem Michel reminding the court on the previous hearings where the interpreter was recused and replaced. Thus Marie Hamadjoda was replaced as interpreter by Epalle Ngollo Aaron Disake and Ngollo Béatrice Cécile. In French, the judge then orders for the accuse to show up in the box but none of them moved an inch(apparently on grounds that they did not understand the language). The judge now tells the interpreter to call them up and after several hesitations, the accused take their place in the box. Barrister Fru John Nsoh raises an objection on the quality of the interpreters saying they are worse than the previous but the judge rejects insisting they are here today to show proof of nationality and not on interpretation issues.
Lawyers request court protection against military brutality
However, before the business of nationality could start, Barrister Ochang Tifuh of the defense counsel took the floor to raise several concerns on the safety and security of lawyers in court. He says they lawyers of the defense are treated with disdain by military personnel who turn around them and do not hesitate to seize their phones as a means of intimidation. He reminds the judge that orders from the court comes from him and not the soldiers and ask him to pass a ruling stopping the men in uniform from such intimidations. He also asked the judged to order soldiers not to keep their identification cards at the gate before getting into court before it is part of their working tool. He equally asks the judge to ensure proper ventillation for the accused given that they were choking in the tight hall and only the fan above the judge was functional.
In response, the judge says he is unaware of the issues with military personnel in court and asked lawyers to inform him whenever they feel their rights have been violated by any soldier in and around the court premises. He however said the keeping of ID cards is a security measure which is applied even to military personnels. Safety measures do not only concern ID cards but phones as well and lawyers are concerned, he said while warning anybody caught taking pictures on phone will be dealth with accordingly. On the ventillation conditions, he ordered the head of logistics of the court to ensure the fan is functional by the next hearing.
Prosecution produces ID cards of Ambazonia leaders
With the stage set, prosecutor-in-chief Col. Engono Thadée Constant took the floor to present ten separate documents attesting to the Cameroonian nationality of the Ambazonia leaders. He says they are photocopies of their ID cards which were obtained from the General Delegation for National Security, DGSN. After submitting the documents to the judge and the defense counsel for appreciation, a legal battle ensued.
Quoting Section 313 of the Criminal Procedure code, Barrister Etta Bessong Junior said the documents ought to be presented in the original form or copies certified by competent authorities(primary evidence) as the photocopies are only secondary evidence(sect. 314 of CPC. He prayed the court to reject the documents since they are neither originals nor certified copies.
The prosecution however says the Delegate General for National Security appended his signature on the documents which make them authentic but Barrister Etta Bessong fires back arguing the prosecution can not produce certified copies when the originals are in the keeping of the accused. After the long argument, the judge now gives the floor to the defense counsel to prove the status’ of the accused.
Tassang refugee, Sissuku Ayuk Tabe asylum seeker
Barrister Ndong Christopher then steps up with two sets of documents ; the first from the United Nations High Commission for refugees in Nigeria and the second from the Nigerian Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons. The documents were obtained from Nigerian by their partners, Barrister Abdul Oroh and Co under the 2011 Freedom of Information Act, Barrister Ndong said.
The first set of documents set of documents delivered by the UNHCR confers the status of refugees to Tassang Wilfred, Nfor Ngala, Shufai Blaise Berinyuy band Eyambe Elias Ebae. The other set of documents from the NCR reveals Julius Ayuk Tabe, Kwanga Cornelieus, Ogork Egbe, Fidelis Nde Che, Kimeng Henry and Augustine Awasum are syluùm seekers. After presenting the documents, Barrister reiterated that they ought not to have been forcibly returned to Cameroon given their status. With respect to section 33 of the UN Convention on refugees, they have to be sent back to Nigeria, Barrister Ndong said. Maitre Emmanuel Simh then takes the floor to warn the court should not joke with the lives of people who risk a death sentence and called on the judge to do the « honourable thing » by sending them back to Nigeria.
Civil party and Prosecution challenge status of Ambazonia leaders
The civil party and the prosecution then launched an offensive describing the documents as fake. The prosecutor said the documents carry the same reference number, date and the copies are not certified. They also pointed out a spelling error in Shufai Blaise Sevidzem’s name to back their claims while also insisting the stamps on the documents are not visible. They concluded that the documents have been falsified to give a status to the Ambazonia leaders. They also said the documents clearly state the accused sought for asylum of refuge as Cameroonian nationals. Even if they are refugees, they don’t have an immunity which exempts them from being judged by the military tribunal, the prosecution and civil party argued. They argue any refugee who is regarded as a threat to their host nation can be refouled and Nigeria considered them as a threat, the prosecution argued. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Resolution 1373 was passed by the UN to combat terrorism which gave provisions for expulsion, extradition… of persons considered a terrorist threat and this was applied by Nigeria to send the accused back to Cameroon, the civil party said.
Sissiku briefly interrupts hearing
As the prosecution was submitting, the cushion on the chair on which Sissiku Julius Ayuk Tabe was sitting sinks down and almost sends the Ambazonia leader on the floor. The court stood still for few minutes as soldiers hurriedly replaced the chair with another solid one.
Anglosaxon culture is not crazy about administration
Barrister Etta Bessong Junior tells the court the Anglosaxon culture is not crazy about administration and it is normal the documents carry the same reference number unlike in the Francophone system marred by administrative bottlenecks. Barrister Fru John Nsoh tasks the judge to verify the documents with the UNHCR if he has any doubts. Barrister Etta reveals the refugee cards of Nfor Ngala Nfor and Barrister Eyambe Elias are in the keeping of the warders who are present in the hall and could be produced if they wants. At this juncture, the judge suspends hearing for close to an hour only to resume at 16.32PM.
Ambazonia leaders are Cameroonian refugees but must be judged in Yaounde
The presideing magistrate returns with a ruling where he starts be recognising the Cameroonian nationality of the Ambazonia leaders as argued by the prosecution. He proceeds to also recognise their status’ as refugees and asylum seekers but said that does not exempt them from being judged at the military tribunal.
The defense counsel objects and requests to appeal the decision which the judge rejects and orders the court clerks to read out the charges to the accused for hearing to begin propers. Barrister Nsoh and Etta Bessong insist to given an oral notice before filing an appeal within 48 hours and say their move is backed by section 436 of the CPC.
Defense Counsel walks out of Court
The decision of the judge to turn down their requests forced the lawyers of the defense counsel to walk out of out leaving the judge bewildered. Without the defense counsel, the judge insists the proceedings will continue while the prosecution proposes to the judge to appoint new lawyers to defend the Ambazonia leaders. The judge turns down the request and adjourns the case to March 7 while hoping the defense Counsel must have returned to their « senses ».
Before closing the day, the judge also instructs the detainees not to come to court with their traditional walking sticks and caps because they could be considered as weapons.
Out of the court room, the lawyers are swearing they will not return until another jurisdiction listen to their appeal. It is now left to be seen if the Ambazonia leaders or their lawyers will appear in court on March 7.