A Cameroonian court handed life sentences to 10 separatist leaders after finding them guilty of charges including terrorism in their fight to break away from the Francophone-dominated central government, their lawyers said.
They included Julius Ayuk Tabe, a key figure in the Anglophone movement in western Cameroon, whose followers made his release since he was arrested 18 months ago a condition for talks with the authorities.
An insurgency broke out in late 2017 following a government crackdown on peaceful protests in the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions by lawyers and teachers complaining of being marginalised by the French-speaking majority.
In the following months, protests turned violent and new armed groups attacked army posts in Anglophone regions.
Tabe and his co-defendants were among 47 Anglophone Cameroonians arrested in Nigeria and deported ahead their trial in December. The group’s lawyers say the accused did not receive fair treatment.
“This judgment is biased,” Afah Ndetan, one of the group’s lawyers, said. “They violated the rights of the accused because the law was not taken into consideration.”
Tabe, a former businessman, is seen as a moderate in the separatist movement and previously promoted dialogue over violence. Since his arrest, other more hardline leaders with militant followings have come to the fore.
These groups, which roam west Cameroon, stepped up a campaign of kidnapping, including high profile politicians and schoolchildren.
Authorities and separatists said they are open to talks, but violence intensified, forcing thousands of civilians to seek refuge in Cameroon’s French-speaking regions and neighbouring countries.
The United Nations estimates since 2017 about 1 800 people have been killed and 530 000 displaced.
Prospects for dialogue are slim, Human Rights Watch said, accusing both sides of abuses.
“Ayuk Tabe became the symbol of the movement, but that movement has moved on. The groups on the ground now are inflicting violence,” said Akere Muna, an opposition politician and former presidential candidate. “Whatever happens to him now might radicalise moderate Anglophones.”