Two police officers on July 30, 2015 arrested Ahmed Abba, a correspondent for Radio France Internationale’s (RFI) Hausa service, as the journalist left a press briefing at the office of a local governor in Maroua, the capital of Cameroon’s far north region, according to RFI and CPJ research.
He was taken to the capital, Yaoundé. The journalist was denied access to his lawyer until October 15, 2015. Officials did not take a statement from Abba until November 13, more than three months after his arrest, in violation of Cameroonian law, according to news reports that cited his lawyers.
RFI reported that Abba mostly covered refugee issues, but also covered attacks carried out by Boko Haram. In a June 2016 statement, RFI called for Abba’s immediate release. RFI cited one of the journalist’s lawyers, Charles Tchoungang, as saying Abba was interrogated in relation to the activities of the extremist sect Boko Haram, which is known for mass kidnappings and targeted attacks on civilians.
Abba pleaded not guilty at a hearing on August 3, 2016, reports said.
Abba’s trial began on February 29, 2016, according to reports that cited Tchoungang and a second lawyer, Nakong Clement. A military tribunal charged the journalist with complicity in acts of terrorism and failure to denounce acts of terrorism under the country’s 2014 anti-terrorism law, news reports said. He faced a maximum sentence of the death penalty.
According to details shared with CPJ about Abba’s March 24 testimony before the military tribunal and people familiar with his case who spoke with CPJ on condition of anonymity, members of the intelligence agency beat Abba with machetes and sticks and walked on his back in their boots. The journalist’s lawyer, Charles Tchoungang told the military court that Abba, who CPJ honored with its 2017 International Press Freedom Award, was beaten by guards who tried to force him to reveal his sources.
In his March 2017 testimony at the tribunal in the Cameroonian capital, Yaoundé, Abba recounted how he was kept handcuffed and at times naked. The journalist said his legs were shackled and he was muzzled while being transported via plane to the capital.
After several delays, a military tribunal on April 20, 2017, acquitted Abba of “apologizing for acts of terrorism,” but convicted him on charges of “non-denunciation of terrorism” and “laundering of the proceeds of terrorist acts.”
On April 24, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a fine of 55 million Central African francs (US$91,133), Clément Nakong, another of Abba’s lawyers, told CPJ.
Abba is currently being held in the Prison Principale de Kondengui in Yaounde.
In a statement released in April, RFI director Cécile Mégie said the French government-funded station had provided “irrefutable evidence” that Abba did not condone terrorism in his reporting.
Cameroon’s communication minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary responded in a radio interview with the state broadcaster, CRTV, in April, according to reports. “It was on the ground of the practice of his journalism that [Abba] was found guilty and tried. I take this opportunity to say that this man, in view of the evidence at the disposal of the Military Court, this journalist or pseudo-journalist is nothing more than an outgrowth of Boko Haram hiding behind the respectable facade of RFI to perpetrate his crime,” he was quoted as saying.
Abba’s appeal hearings before a military tribunal were postponed in August, September, and October of 2017, RFI reported. Abba was permitted to speak in his defense during an appeal court appearance on November 16, 2017, according to Nakong and media reports. Nakong told CPJ that the prosecution did not present any new witnesses or evidence. The next court date, during which the verdict on the appeal was expected, was scheduled for December 21, 2017, according to Nakong.
In January 2017, CPJ wrote a letter to Cameroonian president Paul Biya urging him to instruct military prosecutors to drop all charges against Abba and release him. Cameroonian authorities have not responded to the letter.