Cameroon security forces prevented Amnesty International from holding a press conference to call for the release of three young men jailed in 2015 for sharing a joke.
A dozen uniformed and plainclothes officers closed a conference room in a hotel in Yaounde where the meeting was scheduled to take place, the London-based human rights group said in a statement.
The government confirmed it had thwarted the press conference, citing a “threat to public order”.
Rights groups have criticised increasing repression under the 35-year rule of President Paul Biya, including a recent crackdown on protests in its Anglophone region with dozens jailed and the internet switched off for three months.
Amnesty planned to present over 310,000 letters and petitions protesting the arrest and sentencing of Fomusoh Ivo, Afuh Nivelle Nfor and Azah Levis Gob for sharing a text message joke about the strict academic entrance requirements of Islamist militant group Boko Haram.
“Boko Haram recruits young people from 14 years old and above. Conditions for recruitment: four subjects at GCE, including religion,” the text message said, a joke about Islamists and the difficulty of finding a job in Cameroon.
A teacher discovered the message and reported it to the police. The trio were arrested, jailed in January 2015 and kept in chains for months, Amnesty said. They were found guilty of “non-denunciation of terrorism acts” in November 2016 and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Their appeal hearing is set for June 15.
“If a demonstration is a threat to public order, authorities have the right to ban it. That was what was done to the Amnesty International press conference,” Communications Minister Issa Tchiroma told Reuters, adding this was a “precaution to maintain security.”
Political tensions in Cameroon have simmered in the last seven months against Biya’s long rule. Violent unrest including strikes raised pressure on Biya at home and internationally ahead of next year’s presidential election.