Cameroonian journalist Thomas Awah Junior was arrested in January 2017, and is serving an 11-year sentence in Kondengui Central Prison in Yaoundé on false news and anti-state charges. He is in poor health. 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 Afrik 2 Radio broadcaster in Yaoundé and publisher of the monthly Aghem Messenger magazine, was arrested in Bamenda on January 2, 2017, while interviewing protesters for Afrik2 Radio, 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 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, the spreading of false news, and contempt for civil authority, according to the judgment and a local news report.
On September 17, 2018, an increasingly frail Awah, who before his arrest suffered from poor physical and mental health, was admitted to a private ward at the Yaoundé Central Hospital after a social media campaign. He was suffering from chronic tuberculosis and pneumonia, according to a person with knowledge of his health condition, but who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. The social media campaign included photographs of a critically ill Awah, according to CPJ’s review of the posts and a BBC Pidgin report.
Awah was discharged from the hospital on October 16, 2018, because of mounting hospital bills and was sent back to Kondengui Prison, according to a person with knowledge of his hospitalization, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, as well as local media reports 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 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 administrative order, the same person told CPJ.
Awah appeared before the military appeals tribunal on October 15, 2020, in relation to his anti-state conviction, when a new judge was appointed and the appeal restarted, and then was repeatedly delated, according to a person with knowledge of the case.
Awah also appealed the charges stemming from the 2019 prison protests, and appeared before the Yaoundé Appeals Court in the Centre Region in July 2020, according to a person with knowledge of the case, who said that a judgement was expected on October 26. However, the judge was not present that day and delivered judgment on October 29, the same person said, adding that Awah was not called to court that day to hear the ruling. As of October 2021, neither Awah nor the lawyer who represented him in that appeal had received a copy of the judgement.
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. The letter noted that many of the imprisoned journalists were suffering from ill health exacerbated by overcrowded prisons. Biya did not reply to CPJ’s letter.
Unity Foundation Executive Secretary Julius Ntang told CPJ in September 2020 that Awah’s health had improved after he was transferred from Ngoumou Prison back to Kondengui on October 18, 2019. Awah was receiving regular medical treatment at the Yaoundé Central Hospital, Ntang said. Awah was healthier in 2020, but needed to continue with his medication for tuberculosis and other ailments, including swollen feet, Ntang said.
On August 19, 2021, a military appeals tribunal overturned Awah’s convictions on charges of terrorism and rebellion, but upheld the other convictions of spreading false news, insurrection, secession, hostility against the state, and contempt for civil authority, 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 had appealed the judgment to the Supreme Court, but had yet to receive any reply as of October 2021.
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. A decision was pending as of late 2021, Adam Lhedmat, Freedom Now’s legal officer, told CPJ via messaging app.
On May 18, 2021, Freedom Now also wrote to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Tlaleng Mofokeng, stating that the journalist’s health had “deteriorated precipitously” and that the overcrowded and ill-supplied prison, which had recorded cases of COVID-19, had exacerbated his “existing health conditions and created new ones” requiring regular hospital attention, according to a copy of the letter reviewed by CPJ.
The letter said that the need for Awah to pay for his own life-saving medical care had forced him to accrue serious debts with long-term prisoners as credit lenders, who charged inordinately high interest rates, in collusion with prison authorities.
“If Mr. Awah is unable to repay his debts at the time of his release, the prison authorities, facilitated by the bribes they received from the credit-lenders, would likely block his release,” the letter said. Lhedmat told CPJ that Mofokeng had not responded to the letter as of October 2021. CPJ contacted Mofokeng for comment via messaging app in early October and was referred to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which CPJ emailed for comment in October 2021 but did not receive any reply.
Also on May 18, Freedom Now wrote a similar letter, reviewed by CPJ, to Nils Melzer, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. It urged Melzer to ensure that Awah had “necessary and uninhibited access” to medical care, food, and water as soon as possible, and that any debts incurred during his imprisonment be underwritten by Cameroonian authorities. Lhedmat told CPJ that Freedom Now had also not received any response to that letter by October 2021.
CPJ called Communication Minister Rene Sadi, who is also a government spokesperson, for comment in late 2021, but the call did not go through and Sadi did not respond to a text message seeking comment. Sadi’s adviser, Charles Manda, also did not respond to emails or texts sent via messaging app in September, October, and November 2021.
CPJ emailed the government’s cabinet secretariat in September and November 2021, but did not receive any reply.