Authorities in Cameroon have continued to hold a breastfeeding mother in detention a year after a court ordered her release on bail. An Appeal Court in the Southwest region of the country on December 15, 2021 granted bail to Antoinette Kongnso but she remains incarcerated one year after the court decision, together with her 14-month-old baby born in detention.
Lawyers say her continued detention is an abuse of the justice system in the country and is an example of the injustice felt by Cameroonians.
A former girlfriend of Mbashie Clement – a dreaded armed separatist fighter in the country known as ‘General No Pity’ — Kongnso was arrested “without a warrant” on October 2, 2021 in Buea, the headquarters of the Southwest region, one of two English-speaking regions of the country ravaged by a six-year-long bloody armed conflict.
About 6,000 people have been killed after a protest by lawyers and teachers in the English-speaking parts of the majority French-speaking country over perceived and real marginalisation which resulted into a conflict following a military crackdown on protesters.
Militia groups have since sprouted and increased demands for the secession of the minority English speakers and the creation of an independent English-speaking country which they want called Ambazonia.
‘General No Pity’ heads one of the militia groups which the government has repeatedly accused of attacking and inflicting casualties on the military in the Northwest, another of the two English-speaking regions.
Though her relationship with ‘General No Pity’ ended long ago, Kongnso was accused of “failure to report acts of terrorism” of her former boyfriend and was arrested while she was eight months pregnant and initially detained incommunicado at local police headquarters before being transferred to the Buea Central Prison. She gave birth in November 2021.
The International Crisis Group and the US State Department have reported on retaliation against women and girls in connection with their relationships – family or romantic – with fighters on both sides of the conflict.
The military tribunal had earlier denied Kongnso bail but the Inquiry Control Chambers of the Appeal Court “which has exclusive jurisdiction to hear appeals on bail-related issues from the military tribunal” granted the bail following an appeal from her lawyers.
According to barrister Legenju Vitalise, one of the lawyers defending Kongnso, she was supposed to be released following the appeal court's decision – given that no new charges have been brought against her.
“Her continuous detention is a clear testament that there is a breakdown in the rule of law in Cameroon”, barrister Legenju told The EastAfrican, adding that “her continuous detention is illegal and will remain illegal”.
The human rights lawyer explained that Kongnso was charged with failure to report acts of terrorism – a crime for which she will not be sentenced to more than a year in jail.
“Even if she was to be tried and sentenced, she would not spend over a year in jail. No right-thinking judge would sentence someone who fails to report what does not exist for over a year in jail,” barrister Legenju said.
Monitor Kongnso’s trial
The Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch initiative announced on Thursday last week that it will monitor Kongnso’s trial as she clocked one year in jail following the bail pronouncement.
TrialWatch monitors criminal trials globally against those who are most vulnerable, including women and girls, and evaluates the proceedings against applicable regional and international standards to advocate for the rights of individuals who are unfairly imprisoned.
Citing Kongnso’s lawyers, the monitor said authorities have refused to free the breastfeeding mother because, among other things, they are insisting on a letter from the Ministry of Justice authorising the release.
Under the international and regional treaties that Cameroon has ratified, “maintaining a person in detention after release has been ordered by a court competent to exercise control over the legality of detention” violates the right to freedom from arbitrary detention.
“TrialWatch will continue to track the case and will release a further report in the coming months,” the monitor said.