Cameroonian freelance journalist Tsi Conrad was sentenced in 2018 to 15 years in Kondengui Central Prison on anti-state charges. In September 2019, he was sentenced to additional time in prison, to run concurrently, for allegedly taking part in protests by inmates over poor prison conditions. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in July 2021 found that Conrad was arbitrarily detained and called on the Cameroonian government to immediately release him.
Conrad, a freelance journalist, writer, and filmmaker in Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s English-speaking Northwest Region, was sentenced to 15 years in jail on May 25, 2018, by a military court in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, according to news reports.
The journalist was found guilty of terrorism, secession, hostility against the state, contempt for civil authority, rebellion, and spreading false news, including by electronic means, according to the court judgment, which CPJ reviewed, and a local news report.
Conrad provided video and images to the pro-separatist news website Bareta News, according to the owner of the outlet, Mark Bareta. The images were also used by privately owned Abakwa FM radio and CNTV in Bamenda, a person familiar with the case, who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity, said. Conrad also did work for Ruphina’s House, a news agency and film production company that he started in 2013, and for Cejay Productions, a multimedia company involved in news collection, filmmaking, and graphic design that was started in 2008.
Conrad also distributed images of rallies and protests to other journalists, including those working on the privately owned Horizon TV, Rush FM Radio, and Ndefcam Radio based in Bamenda, the same person said. Conrad also published video and still footage of the protests on his blog, as well as his personal Facebook page and other pages on the social media platform, the person said.
Conrad was arrested at gunpoint on December 8, 2016, by at least 10 military officers, while filming a rally of the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement that had turned violent, the person told CPJ. His camera was destroyed and he was held by the Bamenda judicial police for five hours and interrogated, the person told CPJ.
He was transferred to Yaoundé half-naked in his boxer shorts and chained in the back of a military vehicle that night, and was detained without outside contact for two weeks at the Directorate for Territorial Surveillance, the police’s secretive intelligence arm, the person said.
Conrad was repeatedly questioned about the images he had taken and the media organizations to which he had distributed them, the person said. The journalist was transferred after two weeks to Kondengui Central Prison and appeared before a military tribunal on December 23, 2016; the trial dragged on for more than a year and through at least 16 adjournments before the May 2018 sentencing, the person told CPJ.
Conrad’s appeal before the military tribunal in Yaoundé began in June 2019, but was repeatedly adjourned, the same person told CPJ.
On July 22, 2019, inmates at the Kondengui Central Prison staged protests over their living conditions, including chronic overcrowding, and delays in their cases getting to court, the person said. Authorities transferred Conrad and other alleged protesters to the State Secretariat for Defense in Yaoundé, where they were held incommunicado for two weeks and returned to Kondengui Central Prison on August 4, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
On August 6, 2019, the Ekounou court of first instance in Yaoundé charged Conrad and other inmates with rebellion, attempted prison break, destruction of property, and theft. That trial started on August 23, 2019, and on September 2, Conrad was acquitted on three charges but was found guilty of group rebellion and sentenced to an additional 18 months in prison, to run concurrently, the person with knowledge of his case told CPJ.
Conrad’s appeal of the “group rebellion” conviction was heard in June, July, and twice in September 2020, according to a person with knowledge of his case. Conrad appeared in court on October 26, 2020, expecting a verdict, but the judge was absent, the person said. On October 29, the judge reduced Conrad’s concurrent prison sentence from 18 to 16 months, the person said, adding that Conrad was not present at the court for that hearing.
CPJ and 80 other organizations wrote a letter to President Paul Biya on April 6, 2020, urging that he free Conrad 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 respond to the letter.
In November 2019, Conrad was diagnosed with third-degree hemorrhoids by a doctor at Yaounde’s Central Hospital who recommended surgery, the person familiar with his case said, and added that Conrad suffered from digestive problems, including stomach cramps.
On August 19, 2021 a military appeals tribunal overturned Conrad’s conviction on charges of terrorism and rebellion, but upheld the other charges of spreading false news, insurrection, hostility against the state, and contempt for civil authority, according to Conrad’s 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 15-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.
In a July 29, 2021, opinion, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Conrad’s detention was arbitrary and recommended that he should be immediately released and that a full and independent investigation be undertaken into the circumstances of his arrest.
The opinion also stated that the proceedings against Conrad were brought because he was exercising his right to freedom of expression and to peaceful assembly, and alleged that the provisions of the national security and anti-terror laws used in his case were vague and overbroad. It stated that the prosecutions against Conrad lacked any lawful basis, and that his trial before a military tribunal was a serious violation of his right to a fair and impartial court.
Conrad’s defense had no opportunity to call any witnesses, the journalist was forced to confess to crimes he did not commit, he was ill-treated in detention, and was held incommunicado at the beginning of his detention, that opinion said.
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.