Thomas Awah Junior

Beats Covered:
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Thomas Awah Junior, a journalist from Cameroon’s separatist English-speaking Northwest Region, was sentenced in 2018 to serve an 11-year sentence on multiple charges that include secession, insurrection, and spreading false information. He was tried in a military court, alongside two other journalists and four other Anglophone detainees. In 2019, Awah was sentenced to an additional three years after protesting poor conditions in Kondengui Central Prison in the capital, Yaoundé. Awah appealed his original conviction, which was partially overturned by a Military Appeals Tribunal in 2021. In 2023, he appealed to the Supreme Court but no hearing date has been set. He is in poor health. 

On January 2, 2017, Awah, a correspondent for the privately owned Afrik2 Radio and publisher of the monthly Aghem Messenger magazine, was arrested in Bamenda, the capital of Northwest Region, while interviewing protesters, according to a person familiar with the case who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisals.

The protests were part of Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis, which began in October 2016 when lawyers and teachers demonstrated against the use of French in minority English-speaking regions. The government’s deadly crackdown triggered a secessionist rebellion and ongoing conflict that has killed at least 6,000 people.

Awah was found in possession of documents from the secessionist Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), a second person familiar with the case told CPJ on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisals.

On May 25, 2018, a military court in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, sentenced Awah to 11 years in prison and a fine of 268 million Central African francs (US$479,850), 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. Six other Anglophone detainees were sentenced on similar charges, including journalists Mancho Bibixy and Tsi Conrad

On September 17, 2018, 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 had chronic tuberculosis and pneumonia, according to a third person familiar with his case, who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisals, and the rights group Freedom Now.

On October 16, 2018, Awah was discharged because of mounting hospital bills, according to that person and media reports. CPJ wrote to President Paul Biya requesting that he release Awah on medical grounds but did not receive a reply.

On July 22, 2019, a protest by Kondengui Central Prison inmates over overcrowding and delays in hearing their cases, resulted in Awah’s special detention within the jail, according to that person.

On August 8, 2019, Awah was charged by the Ekounou Court of First Instance, with group rebellion, arson, attempt to escape, looting, causing bodily harm, and theft, among other charges, that person told CPJ. On September 9, 2019, Awah was found guilty of group rebellion, destruction of property, and resistance to the administrative order and sentenced to another three years in jail, to be served at the same time as his original sentence, the same person told CPJ.

In Awah’s main case, on August 19, 2021, a military appeals tribunal overturned his convictions for terrorism and rebellion but upheld the other five charges, according to Awah’s former lawyer Ngang Ngu Fonguh and a copy of the judgment reviewed by CPJ. It also dropped the 268 million CFA francs fine and reduced the court fines from 31.7 million to 2.5 million CFA (US$54,342 to $4,291) to be divided among the seven Anglophone defendants, Fonguh said.

In 2022, Freedom Now’s legal officer, Adam Lhedmat, told CPJ that prison had exacerbated Awah’s pre-existing toxoplasmosis, tuberculosis, and pneumonia, and the state was charging Awah exorbitant fees for medication, which worsened his family’s strained financial situation, particularly since his father’s death in 2021.

In a May 2023 opinion, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said that the “alarming” conditions under which Awah was being detained had caused his health to worsen and called on Cameroon to immediately free the journalist and grant him compensation.

In May 2023, a joint submission by CPJ, the American Bar Association, and Freedom House to the U.N. Human Rights Council for Cameroon’s Universal Periodic Review called on Cameroon to immediately free Awah and four other journalists who were arbitrarily detained. 

On August 25, 2023, after delays in receiving the written judgment from the lower court, Fonguh filed an appeal in the Supreme Court, according to court documents reviewed by CPJ. As of late 2023, the Supreme Court had not set a date for a hearing, according to the third person familiar with the case.

CPJ’s requests for comment via a letter to the Cameroonian embassy in Washington, D.C., did not receive any response. 

Denis Omgba Bomba, head of the communication ministry’s National Media Observatory told CPJ that Awah was charged with common law offences, which fell within the remit of the Ministry of Justice, and that legal proceedings had to be settled by the courts before any mediation by the Ministry of Communication.

CPJ’s calls to the Ministry of Justice did not receive a reply.