Cameroonian journalist Thomas Awah Junior is in poor health and serving an 11-year sentence in Kondengui Central Prison in Yaoundé on false news and anti-state charges. In 2019, he was sentenced to an additional three years in jail, to run concurrently with his original sentence, for his alleged role in a prison protest.
Awah, the Northwest correspondent for privately owned Afrik2 Radio broadcaster in Yaoundé and publisher of the monthly Aghem Messenger magazine, was arrested in the northwestern city of Bamenda on January 2, 2017, while interviewing protesters, according to a journalist with knowledge of the circumstances of his arrest who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.
Awah, a former correspondent for Equinoxe TV, was found in possession of documents from the secessionist Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), which was banned two weeks later by authorities, another person with knowledge of the case told CPJ.
A military court in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, sentenced Awah to 11 years in prison on May 25, 2018, according to media reports and a copy of the judgment seen by CPJ. The journalist was found guilty of terrorism, hostility to the fatherland, secession, revolution, insurrection, spreading false news, and contempt for civil authority and was tried alongside journalists Tsi Conrad and Mancho Bibixy and four other Anglophone detainees.
On September 17, 2018, an increasingly frail Awah, who suffered from poor physical and mental health before his arrest, was admitted to the Yaoundé Central Hospital after a social media campaign. He suffered from chronic tuberculosis and pneumonia, according to a person with knowledge of his health who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.
Awah was discharged and sent back to Kondengui Prison on October 16, 2018, because of mounting hospital bills, according to a person with knowledge of his hospitalization, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, a media report, and a tweet by the Unity Foundation Cameroon, a local nongovernmental organization.
In December 2018, CPJ wrote to President Paul Biya requesting that he consider releasing Awah from jail on medical grounds but did not receive a reply.
On July 22, 2019, a protest by Kondengui Central Prison inmates over their living conditions, including chronic overcrowding and delays in their cases getting to court, resulted in Awah’s special detention within the jail, according to a person with knowledge of the case, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.
Awah was charged by the Ekounou Court of First Instance on August 8, 2019, with group rebellion, arson, attempt to escape, looting, causing bodily harm, and theft, among other charges, that person told CPJ. He was sentenced on September 9 to another three years in jail to be served concurrently with his original sentence on charges of group rebellion, destruction of property, and resistance to the administrative order, the same person told CPJ.
Awah appealed the charges, and the Yaoundé Appeals Court delivered a judgment on October 29, 2020, when Awah was not present, according to a person with knowledge of the case. As of October 2022, neither Awah nor his lawyer, who represented him, has received a copy of the judgment.
CPJ and 80 other organizations wrote a letter to President Biya on April 6, 2020, urging that he free Awah and other jailed journalists amid the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that many imprisoned journalists suffered from ill health exacerbated by overcrowding. Biya did not reply.
On August 19, 2021, after repeated delays, a military appeals tribunal overturned Awah’s convictions on terrorism and rebellion charges but upheld the others, according to Awah’s former lawyer Ngang Ngu Fonguh, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app, and a copy of the judgment reviewed by CPJ.
The tribunal maintained the original 11-year sentence but dropped one fine of 268,000,000 Central African francs (US$459,297.33) and reduced the court fines from 31,708,480 to 2,504,000 francs (US$54,341.87 to $4,291.35) to be divided among seven defendants, Fonguh said, adding that his clients appealed the judgment to the Supreme Court but had not received a reply as of October 2022. Another person familiar with the case, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said a written judgment from the lower court had yet to be given to the journalists or their defense lawyer.
On October 8, 2020, the rights organization Freedom Now filed a petition with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, arguing that Awah’s detention violated the Cameroonian government’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Freedom Now updated the working group in August 2022 about Awah’s case and was expecting an opinion at its next session in November, Adam Lhedmat, Freedom Now’s legal officer, told CPJ via messaging app in October 2022. As of December 2, the opinion has not been published.
Lhedmat added that Awah was waiting for his final appeal before the Cameroon Supreme Court to be heard amid administrative delays.
Awah’s continued detention has physically, financially, and emotionally drained him, Lhedmat told CPJ. Prison conditions had exacerbated his pre-existing health issues, including toxoplasmosis, tuberculosis, and pneumonia, and the state was charging Awah exorbitant fees for chronic medication, which worsened his family’s strained financial situation, Lhedmat said, adding that Awah’s father died in 2021, and since then, the family’s finances have prevented his mother from visiting.
In February 2022, during the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, CPJ and 26 other civil society organizations published an open letter calling for the release of journalists and others arbitrarily detained in the country.
CPJ’s calls, texts, and messages sent to Cameroonian government spokesperson Rene Sadi via messaging app, and to his adviser Charles Manda, went unanswered in October and November 2022, and an email sent to the government’s cabinet office did not receive a reply.