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The protection of prisoners rights in Anglophone Cameroon: A critical appraisal

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1.1 Background to the study

The existence of prison has long been part of human history. Prisons can be traced back to the Roman Empire when offenders were detained pending trial or sentence by Masters in order to punish disobedient servants. In England in the ninth century prisons were used to restrain the King’s enemies from going around.

In the sixteenth century, Europe introduced houses of corrections where able-bodied people could perform labour to address the rising problems of petty offenders By the seventeenth-century transportation to other locations where prisoners could work was introduced and the destination was mainly colonies in North America and Australia.

Until recent times, the punishment was harsh, criminals were exiled, enslaved, tortured, mutilated and executed.

The use of imprisonment as a method of treating prisoners in continental Europe is relatively new dating back no further than the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Of course jails, Lock-ups and places of detention of various kinds have been in existence for hundreds of years until 200 years ago that they were used for anything other than places of detention for offenders.

In America, the first prisons were designed around a program developed by Dr Benjaminone of the signatories of the declaration of independence and by 1790 the Act that is regarded as the bedrock of the modern system of prison administration in America was passed on the 6th of April 1790 creating the principle of solitary confinement and system of discipline.

In pre-colonial Africa, few societies used containment and where it was used compensation was needed to grant liberty. During the slave trade era, slaves we contained in facilities that cannot be attributed as the equivalence of conceptual prison.

It was only during the colonial era that prisons were noticed in Africa –a mechanism used by the colonialists to collect tax and to facilitate forced labour. The colonialists were running two prison systems, one in their home country and another in the colonized territories and as the quest for independence reached upsurge imprisonment went on the rise.

This was equally the case in the then Southern Cameroons and La Republique du Cameroun.

Today it is estimated that at any given time about 10 million people across the world are held in prisons with a population of about 668,000 in sub-Sahara 1 Africa and a million in the African continent as a whole. Africa comprises about 3,000 prisons holding over 10% of the world’s prison population, and this continues to rise alongside gross violations of the rights of prisoners.

Overall, conditions of detention in Africa are often abhorrent to international human rights standards due to an insufficient allocation of state resources and corruption leading to inadequate food and healthcare, lack of access to justice, inefficient administration and training, and severe overcrowding.

Cameroon at least exhibits all of these deficiencies in prisoners rights, and in terms of overcrowding, is the second-worst in the world with a prisoner to rate of 296.3%.

As of 2019, there were about 79 prisons in Cameroon, which are divided into three main categories: central prisons, located in the capital city of each Region; principal prisons, which are linked to magistrates courts accommodating all categories including pre-trial prisoners; and, secondary prisons that only accommodate sentenced prisoners and are scattered throughout the country.

In the Anglophone part of Cameroon imprisonment and violations of rights of prisoners have taken a hike since the ongoing armed conflict in the region began.

Since the start of the conflict in 2016, security and police forces have reportedly ignored the constitutional and legal procedures; illegally detaining opposition activists, those suspected of aiding separatists or those who criticize the government.

Since the 2016 conflict began, pre-trial detention appears to have become, the norm, sometimes for months at a time.

Human Rights Watch alleges that the Government has engaged in a continued practise of ‘forced disappearances in the Anglophone regions where individuals are arrested and held incommunicado without any formal charges being laid against them or their families/legal representatives being informed of their whereabouts.

Also a number of reports that lawyers have been denied access to their clients during the pretrial and then trial process, and sometimes face threats and physical violence if they insist on upholding their clients’ legal rights.

Due to the ongoing war in this region, the conditions inside detainment facilities have been reported to be purposely designed to be cruel and dehumanizing especially to those incarcerated under the Ambazonia ideology. The Ministry of Justice and human rights bodies have both
reported that many prisons in Anglophone Cameroon and those in Douala and Yaounde are operating at several thousand prisoners more than their designed capacity. This has led to endemic overcrowding and unhygienic living conditions for detainees. In addition, prison guards are reported to use excessive force to punish dissent, frequently beating and humiliating prisoners.

A recent prison riot in Buea and Bamenda led to violent clashes with guards in which several prisoners were beaten by gangs of guards, and live ammunition was used to put down the protests. Prospects as to the protection of rights of prisoners getting better is doubtful as the ongoing armed conflict in Anglophone Cameroon continues.

1.2 Problem Statement

The preamble of Cameroon’s constitution asserts that no person may be prosecuted, arrested or detained, except in the cases and according to the manner determined by law. It further holds that every person has a right to life, to physical and moral integrity and to humane treatment in all circumstances.

Under no circumstances shall any person be subjected to torture, to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. Section 45 of the Constitution states that duly approved or ratified treaties and international agreements shall follow their publication, override national laws, provided the other party implements the said treaty or agreement.

The rights of prisoners have been guaranteed both at local and international legal instruments ratified by Cameroon. Infect, a sentence of imprisonment constitutes only a deprivation of the basic right to liberty. This does not entail any restriction of other human rights, except for those that are naturally restricted by the very fact of being in prison.

Prisoners deprived of their liberty are to be treated with humanity and with respect to the inherent dignity of the human person. From the moment a state decides that it is necessary to deprive persons of liberty it has outrightly accepted to take on an obligation to treat them in a manner that respects their human dignity.

The ongoing crisis in the Anglophone parts of Cameroon has raised some salient concerns pertaining to the rights of prisoners guaranteed under national and international instruments as well as minimum required standards of prisons.

Prison conditions are dehumanizingly characterized by the torture of detainees, poor hygiene and sanitation, overcrowding, inadequate medical services, insufficient food, strip searches, instruments of restraints, access to legal aid and family. It is, therefore, a necessity to make an appraisal to appreciate the extent to which the state has met the very obligation she guarantees in the Anglophone part of Cameroon.

1.3 Research Question

The study has attempted to answer the following questions:

  1. What are the rights of prisoners?
  2. What legal instruments and institutions guarantees and protects the rights of prisoners
  3. What are the minimum required standards of prisons?
  4. Has the state been able to substantially attain minimum required standards for the protection of prisoners’ rights in Anglophone prisons?
  5. To what extent are the rights of Anglophone prisoners violated

1.4 Research Objective

1.4.1 General objective

The general objective of this research is to make an appraisal on how the rights of prisoners are protected in the Anglophone Regions of Cameroon by the state of Cameroon.

1.4.2 Specific objectives are:

  1. To identify the rights of prisoners.
  2. To determine the legal and institutional framework guaranteeing and protecting the rights of prisoners.
  3. To identify the general minimum requirements standards of prisons.
  4. To appreciate state obligation to meet up with minimum requirement standards for prisons.
  5. To evaluate the extent to which the rights of prisoners are violated in Anglophone Cameroon.
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