Cameroonian journalist Thomas Awah Junior is serving an 11-year sentence in Ngoumou, after he was transferred from the Kondengui Central Prison in Yaoundé following a prison riot in July 2019. He is in poor health, and CPJ’s appeal to President Paul Biya for his release on medical grounds was ignored. Awah was sentenced in September 2019 to three additional years in jail for his alleged role in the July riot.
A military court in Yaoundé sentenced Awah, the Northwest correspondent for privately owned Afrik 2 Radio in Yaoundé and publisher of the monthly Aghem Messenger magazine, to 11 years 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–including by electronic means–and contempt for civil authority, according to the judgment and a local news report.
Awah, a former journalist for Equinoxe TV, was tried along with two other journalists, Tsi Conrad and Mancho Bibixy, and four other Anglophone detainees on charges relating to the crisis in Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions that began in late 2016 with protests by teachers and lawyers about the perceived marginalization of English by Cameroon’s majority French-speaking government.
Awah 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’s former Equinoxe colleague-turned-founder of Afrik2 Radio, Polycarpe Essomba, did not respond to repeated calls and WhatsApp messages from CPJ asking for detail about Awah’s case.
Awah was found in possession of documents from the secessionist Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), which was banned a two weeks later by authorities, another person with knowledge of the case told CPJ.
On September 17, 2018, an increasingly frail Awah, who before his arrest suffered from poor physical and mental health, was finally 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. He was guarded by two prison officials, a visitor told CPJ. The social media campaign included photographs of a critically ill Awah, according to local journalists, a BBC Pidgin report, and a CPJ review of the social media posts.
Awah was discharged from hospital a month later on October 16 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, a local nongovernmental organization.
Awah, Bibixy, and Conrad’s appeals before the military appeals tribunal in Yaoundé began in June 2019, but were repeatedly postponed, a person familiar with the case who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal told CPJ in September 2019.
After a second appearance in court that did not yield any decision, Awah refused to participate in the appeal, and told the appeal judge not to call him again, as he had committed no crime, three people familiar with the case, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, told CPJ. CPJ was unable to determine whether his appeal would continue in absentia.
On July 22, a protest by Kondengui Central Prisons inmates about living conditions, including chronic overcrowding, and delays in their cases getting to court, resulted in Awah’s detention, along with Conrad and Bibixy, according to a person with details of the circumstances, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.
Awah was detained at the State Security for Defense office for about two weeks, where officers beat him with a gas tube, the person said. CPJ could not independently verify that allegation.
Awah appeared with Conrad, Bibixy, and other alleged prison rioters in the Ekounou court of first instance on August 8 in relation to the Kondengui prison protest, where they had legal representation, the person familiar with the case told CPJ.
Awah was charged for group rebellion, arson, attempt to escape, looting, causing bodily harm, and theft, among other charges, the person said. Awah 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.
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.
Until the prison protest, Awah had been receiving regular medical treatment at the Yaoundé Central Hospital. Unity Foundation Executive Director Julian Ntang, who visited Awah in the Ngouma jail, told CPJ in September 2019 that the journalist had not seen a doctor or received any medical treatment since. The Unity Foundation also visited Awah in October, and while he appeared “quite healthy,” the journalist had complained about a urinary tract infection, Ntang told CPJ. Awah was transferred back to Kondengui Central Prison on October 18 and was able to resume taking medication and was doing well, he said.
Communication Minister Rene Sadi, who is a government spokesperson, did not respond to a text message in late September seeking comment. His adviser Charles Manda also did not respond to calls, emails, or texts via messaging app.