YAOUNDE (Reuters) - A Cameroonian court handed life sentences to 10 separatist leaders on Tuesday after finding them guilty of charges including terrorism in their fight to break away from the Francophone-dominated central government, their lawyers said.
They included Julius Ayuk Tabe, a key figure in the Anglophone movement in western Cameroon, whose followers have made his release since he was arrested 18 months ago a condition for talks with the authorities.
An insurgency broke out in late 2017 following a government crackdown on peaceful protests in the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions by lawyers and teachers who complain of being marginalized by the French-speaking majority.
In the following months, protests turned violent and newly formed armed groups began attacking army posts in the Anglophone regions.
Tabe and his co-defendants were among 47 Anglophone Cameroonians arrested in Nigeria and deported to Cameroon in January 2018 where their trial started in December. The group’s lawyers say the accused have not received fair treatment.
“This judgement is biased,” Afah Ndetan, one of the group’s lawyers, said on Tuesday. “They violated the rights of the accused because the law was not taken into consideration.”
Tabe, a former businessman, is seen as a moderate voice in the separatist movement and has in the past promoted dialogue over violence. Since his arrest, other more hardline leaders with more militant followings have come to the fore.
These groups, which roam the lush and hilly woods of west Cameroon, have this year stepped up a campaign of kidnapping, including of high profile politicians and school children.
Both the authorities and the separatists have said they are open to talks, but violence by both sides has intensified, forcing thousands of civilians to seek refuge in Cameroon’s French-speaking regions and neighbouring countries.
The United Nations estimates that since 2017 about 1,800 people have been killed in the conflict while 530,000 have been displaced.
Prospects for real dialogue are slim, Human Rights Watch said in June, accusing both sides of abuses.
“Ayuk Tabe became the symbol of the movement, but that movement has moved on. The groups on the ground now are inflicting violence,” said Akere Muna, an opposition politician and former presidential candidate. “Whatever happens to him now might radicalise moderate Anglophones.”
The oil, cocoa and timber-producing nation was among Central Africa’s most stable until a few years ago. But, in addition to the separatist uprising, it also faces a insurgency by Boko Haram, a militant Islamist movement, which has spilled over from Nigeria into its northern territory.
Reporting by Josiane Kouagheu; Additional reporting by Edward McAllister; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Edward McAllister and James Drummond