Dozens of activists from Cameroon’s English-speaking community were freed from jail as the mainly French-speaking nation’s president moved to ease months of tension among minorities.
President Paul Biya last week ordered a military court to drop prosecution of the detainees, arrested after protests late last year by anglophones demanding equal treatment.
Around 50 were released from two prisons in Yaounde after midnight. Watched by security forces, family members and journalists gathered outside to greet the activists, who then boarded buses that took them home.
“I was in jail for five months. My mother couldn’t visit me,” said a freed detainee, who asked not to be named. “I‘m innocent. I was arrested when I went out to see a gathering of leaders …I was just getting by. Now I have nothing left.”
Among others freed were civil society leaders Felix Agbor Balla and Fontem Aforteka‘a Neba, arrested in January and held under anti-terrorism laws enacted in response to incursions by Islamist militant group Boko Haram.
The pair – who pleaded not guilty in February to charges including complicity in hostility against the homeland, secession and civil war – faced a potential death sentence if convicted.
Their case added fuel to longstanding opposition in the north-west and south-west regions against Biya’s francophone-dominated government, which has responded to unrest with a crackdown.
Biya’s office said the decision to release the detainees reflected the president’s resolve to find a “peaceful solution to crises”.
But an easing of tensions did not appear imminent as others, including well-known radio broadcaster Mancho Bibixy, remained in jail with their cases due to be reviewed at the end of this month.
“Bibixy and the others were only expressing what they thought. They didn’t kill anyone,” Calvin Tah Ndangoh, his lawyer, told Reuters. “We do not know why he wasn’t released.”
Anglophone activists have called for a boycott of the start of the new school year next week.
In response, around 1,000 paramilitary police, including 400 reinforcements, were deployed in the volatile regions due to the “persistent threat of activists” in a security operation due to last 128 days.