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Ebenezer Akwanga: A case for compensation

The 1.5 Billion Franc CFA Compensation for Ebenezer Akwanga the Government of Cameroon does not want to pay.

By Francis Ngwa in London, UK.

Five years after the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland recommended that the Cameroon government among other things, pay compensation to former political prisoner Dr. Ebenezer Derek Mbongo Akwanga, it has failed to respect the decision of the UN body. The Cameroon Government, a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, violated the covenant when it arrested, tortured and imprisoned Akwanga and dozens of other English speaking activists in 1999.

According to Kevin Laue of the London based Human rights Charity Redress and Defence Counsel for Akwanga in Geneva, “…Cameroon has done very little, if anything to abide by the obligations. What we tried to do a few years ago to get the thing moving otherwise it will lead to a deadlock; we wrote directly to the government of Cameroon and the president and other state officials copying the Human Rights Committee. In order to get some kind of dialogue going, we said that we thought it was reasonable to claim 3 million US dollars and that we were quite willing to discuss this further to resolve the compensation case”.

Defence lawyers for the Cameroon government have since insisted Ebenezer Akwanga, who has a warrant for his arrest back in Cameroon, returns to the country before any kind of negotiations can take place.

Dr. Akwanga himself is not amused by the long wait to get compensation considering that other victims who also won cases against the government at the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Committee, have since been paid. Hear him, “I never asked them to torture me. I am saying that if the state of Cameroon does not pay me now, they are going to pay tomorrow or after tomorrow so there is no way they are going to escape out of it. If the state thinks that it is good to keep torturing people and taking tax-payers money to compensate, so be it…”

In October 1999, Ebenezer Akwanga and dozens of other Southern Cameroons activists were sentenced to long prison terms by the Military Tribunal in Yaoundé for subversion, non-denunciation of activities against the state and insurrection, charges they denied. Ebenezer received a 20 year-jail-term but escaped from prison 7 years later. He was tortured and almost blinded in prison. Most of his jailhouse comrades died in prison. In 2006, Ebenezer was granted refugee status in the USA. In 2007, he contacted London based human rights organisation Redress that fights for the rights of state tortured victims. The case was taken to the UN Human Rights Committee that ruled in Ebenezer’s favour in 2011.

In Communications no 1813/2008, the UN Committee ruled inter alia “…the state party (Cameroon government) is under an obligation to provide the author (Ebenezer Akwanga) with an effective remedy, which should include a review of his conviction with the guarantees enshrined in the covenant, an investigation of the alleged events and prosecution of the persons responsible, as well as adequate reparation, including compensation…”

Almost 20 years after he was first arrested for “insurrection and state subversion”, Dr. Akwanga is still suffering from the intense torture he suffered in the hands of state security officials. His wife Agnes Akwanga confessed that he still suffers from nightmare’s, can go for long periods without sleep and is now half blind because of the harsh prison light he was subjected to periodically. He was half paralysed in prison and sometimes loses his balance.

Redress defence Counsel Kevin Laue says some kind of compensation will gradely reduce the sense of injustice he suffers from now.

“…If he can get a measure of justice which is what we are seeking for him, that will help a great deal. It always helps when torture victims get some compensation and acknowledgement from the government, if they get some accountability and some of the people who did wrong are brought to account, all of this helps because it will make people feel they have not just been tortured and forgotten about”.

The Cameroon Government can begin the process of redress by paying Dr. Akwanga some compensation as the UN Human Rights Committee recommended.

Ebenezer Akwanga versus The State of Cameroon

The Urgent case for Compensation

Now half blind, broken physically and psychologically, there have been renewed calls for the Government of Cameroon to compensate exiled human rights activist Dr. Ebenezer Derek Mbongo Akwanga.

Kevin Laue, Defence Council for London Based Human Rights Organization REDRESS, has called on President Paul Biya to urgently fulfil a 2011 advisory by the UN Human Rights Committee to pay reparations, including compensation to Akwanga, now on exile in the United States of America. It followed a 3 year “trial” by the UN body following a case REDRESS brought for the torture and imprisonment of Akwanga.

Arrested in 1997 along with dozens of other Southern Cameroons activists, Akwanga was tried and sentenced by a military tribunal to 20 years imprisonment for subversion and terrorism, charges they all denied. He managed to escape to Nigeria in 2003 and REDRESS helped file his case against the government in 2007. The Cameroon government has so far refused to resolve the instructions the Human Rights Committee made after examining the matter.

Kevin Laue was Akwanga’s Defence Counsel in Geneva, Switzerland. Francis Ngwa Niba met him at the REDRESS head office in London

Q Your human rights organization Redress represented Ebenezer Akwanga in his torture case against the government of Cameroon at the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland. How did the case all start?

A

Dr Akwanga approached us in 2007 when he was living in the United States and told us what happened to him, how he was arrested and tortured and tried by a military tribunal even though he was a civilian and then sentenced to 20 years in prison. He described all the terrible conditions he endured before and after he was sentenced. He also narrated how he managed to escape and made his way to the United States of America via Nigeria. He wanted us to help him if we could. We were able to bring a case on his behalf to the Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland. We took it there because Cameroon is a signatory to an international treaty called the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The country is also a signatory to that part of the treaty which allows individuals who have had their human rights violated to bring a case to the Human Rights Committee in Geneva. We spent some time getting all the necessary information and documentation from Dr Akwanga and we were then able to file the petition in 2008.

Q As an international human rights organization that represent state-tortured victims of torture, you probably receive thousands of requests from people who want you to represent them. How do you decide which case is relevant?

A

The first thing we usually need to know is to establish if the facts do constitute torture as defined in international law. The key thing is that torture in International law means that someone has had severe pain physical or mental inflicted on them by a state agent. That will mean that the government is responsible in some way. In other words, that distinguishes it from torture by civilians on other civilians. There has to be a link to the state. The second thing is that we often need to check if there is anything we can do because some states or countries are not signatories to some of these international treaties. That disqualifies a lot of people who come to us. Sometimes some people, when they have had explained to them that it will be a long and difficult process, decide they don’t want to go through it. Others decide that if their families which are still back in the country are going to be targeted or arrested sometimes (as often happens) decide not to go ahead with it again. Also, there are cases when we can’t really do anything. In Ebenezer’s case, we were able to pursue the case because Cameroon is a signatory to the treaty. That means it has allowed the Human Rights Committee to consider all cases brought by Cameroonians to it.

Q You are not a doctor which means you probably hire doctors to check on the veracity of a torture case. How do you make sure people are just not lying and want to get free money from a state? In Ebenezer’s case, what was the tell-tale evidence he had been tortured apart from the fact he was imprisoned?

A

It is always necessary, whenever you have to take a case either to the Human Rights Committee or to a court, to produce evidence which will satisfy the body concerned that what has happened allegedly did happen. In Ebenezer’s case, we based on evidence that he himself gave. He needed to set out very clearly, what happened to him. Secondly, we are not doctors. We use medical experts- physicians and psychiatrists and psychologists, who can examine people and who can reach conclusions. They can never prove that torture took place because they weren’t there but it is possible to produce medical evidence which is consistent with the story as told by the victim or survivor and that adds credibility. When a person is examined by a doctor, he can then say these particular injuries could have been had from torture or a psychiatrist who will then say this person is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and that is consistent with what the person said happened to him/her. That is usually very helpful in persuading a court or a human rights committee.

Q How bad was the case of Ebenezer compared to other cases you have handled from other countries?

A

It was pretty bad. All torture is bad but sometimes people go through more than others. I think one of the worst things that Ebenezer had to endure was the long period during which he was in detention and what he had to go through. He was arrested in 1997 and only managed to escape seven years later. During that whole period, he went through many awful experiences, direct torture in the several weeks and months when he was first arrested and was being forced to make confessions or admit to things he did not do. There was also indirect ill treatment during that time, the neglect, the abuse by fellow detainees, and then the trial itself which was before a military tribunal which in itself is completely wrong in international law. He was a civilian; he should not have been subject to a trial by a military court. Then there was the extremely bad conditions in prison after he was sentenced because he spent many years so by the time he got out, he was pretty wrecked physically and mentally. I will say his torture is at the extreme end of the scale. It will be among the worst that we have seen.

Q This means the Human Rights Committee has to look through all these evidence before deciding if it is necessary to look into the case and pass judgement?

A

What they do is that they look at what we present. We presented a petition (a technical term) in 2008. It included all I have been saying about the case which is the narrative. We presented supporting evidence which included medical reports and reports from Amnesty International. They look at all the evidence. They then give the Cameroon government a chance to respond. They send a copy to Cameroon. They can then admit, deny or dispute the facts of the case. We will then have to reply to that. So each side is given a chance to prove its case. Eventually, the Committee makes a decision and they did so in Ebenezer’s case in 2011. It is all done on documents. It is not a trial in the usual sense when people give oral evidence with witnesses. It took almost three years before a decision came out

Q And what was the decision?

A

In a nutshell, what the Human Rights Committee did was say they had looked at both sides of the argument and it was sufficient for them to conclude that what Ebenezer said was the truth. He was tortured, his trial was unfair because it was held in a military court, he was not given a proper chance to defend himself and that he had been ill-treated in prison. They concluded that Cameroon has breached all its obligations. Cameroon had agreed not to torture people, not to arrest them without telling them why they were arrested, not to deprive them of legal defence, not to ill treat them. It then issues what it calls it Views what are really recommendations that it must give Ebenezer an effective remedy. They had to remedy the breaches they were found guilty of. It went further because it gave some specific things that Cameroon was meant to do.  Cameroon had to investigate the issue of torture and it had to prosecute those who were guilty of torture in that instance. The government also had to review the conviction itself- to look at the military trial itself and they had to make some reparations to Ebenezer, including compensation. They didn’t mention a figure, they don’t usually do that but it had to be sufficient to remedy what had happened to him.

Q I understand as his defence counsel, Redress has since made a recommendation about how much the Cameroon government had to pay Ebenezer as compensation?

A

These views were made more than five years ago and sent to the Cameroon government. Cameroon has done very little, if anything, to abide by these recommendations. What we tried to do a few years ago to get the thing moving, we wrote directly to the government in Cameroon, to the president and other state officials in other to get some kind of dialogue going. We said that we were of the view that it was reasonable to claim a figure of three million US dollars (I am rounding it off here because it was slightly above that) and that were quite willing to discuss this further and to try to resolve the compensation issue. Unfortunately, the Cameroon state did not reply but eventually a year or so later, they did file a paper with the Human Rights Committee in Geneva saying that they knew that we were seeking this amount of compensation but they took the position that unless he went back to Cameroon to face the judicial process there (there is a warrant for Ebenezer’s arrest in Cameroon) they were not prepared to do anything. They want him to go back

Q That sounds a bit bizarre because it will be like sending someone into a lion’s den. The Lions will just eat him up. If he gets back to Cameroon, he would be arrested. Why do you think the Cameroon government is reluctant to resolve the issue without Ebenezer being physically in Cameroon?

A

In our view and in Ebenezer’s view, it was just showing that they were not being serious. They do not wish to deal with the obligations.  The Human Rights Committee made it very clear, they knew that he was in exile and could not go back to Cameroon. They in no way suggested that this had to be dealt with by him going back to Cameroon. He is on exile in the United States of America. It is absurd for the Cameroonian government to take this position. It appears it is just a way of avoiding the issue. They know he cannot go back without being persecuted; arrested and possibly tortured again. It is ridiculous to put it bluntly. They are avoiding the compensation, they are avoiding the investigations into the torture, they are avoiding the review; all of those things can be done without Ebenezer travelling back to Cameroon.

Q Will you say the Cameroon government is just playing ‘hide and seek’ with the UN Human Rights Committee?

A

I will not go that far. I will hope that they will still take the obligations seriously. Why sign up to international treaties if you are not going to abide by them?  There have been cases of other Cameroonians taking the government to the Human Rights Committee, wining their cases and they were effectively paid. They have dealt with those other cases in a better way than this one. We think they are very reluctant to do anything in this case but we are still going to pursued them to do something. We are still going to argue strongly via the Human Rights Committee, that it makes no sense for them to ask Ebenezer to go back to Cameroon. They can interview him via video; they can send a commission to interview him if they want more evidence. We are quite happy to give more information if that is what they require.

Q From all intends and purposes, they are treating Ebenezer’s case differently from all other victims. Do you think his is different because he is still campaigning for the independence of English speaking Cameroon on the grounds of marginalization?

A

It could be that but they haven’t said anything to that effect. It will be interesting if they state what is holding them back. That is possible and it will be interesting to ask them. In International law, that is not relevant to this case. He was tortured and deserves reparation.

Q Five years down the line and the Cameroon government still refusing to honour its international obligations, how do you move this forward? The UN cannot go and start bombing Cameroon into submission?

A

It is difficult. The Human Rights Committee like some of these international bodies are limited in its capacity to follow up these cases to persuade governments to abide by their decisions. In the end, it is a political process they are engaged in with the Human Rights Committee. There are annual reports that the Committee will make to other UN bodies about all governments in the world who have outstanding cases against them, regular attempts to discuss with the diplomats representing these countries. This is one of the limitations of these kinds of international treaties; the enforcement mechanism is rather weak. The Cameroon state has to be serious and responsible if they have any concern about their reputation

Q A hypothetical question here; if you meet President Paul Biya today, what will you tell him to move this case forward?

A

I will ask him very politely that he makes sure that his officials look at the documentation very closely, look at the arguments that were made in Geneva and tell his officials to sort this out as soon as possible. He should tell his officials it is not correct the position they have taken as a government. It is not acceptable to ask for Ebenezer to return to Cameroon and as a country, we value our reputation. That is what I will ask him to do.

Q Will you describe Ebenezer as a broken man because of the physical and psychological problems he has gone through and is still suffering today? He is half blind now because of his years in prison and still suffers from nightmares.

A

He has had a lot of problems health-wise in all the time that I have known him. I have met him now a few times. We have seen medical and psychological reports about him. I have spoken to him a number of times when he has been very very down. He is battling and will always battle to cope with what happened to him. He is however remarkably resilient. He has continued to try and rebuild his life, to provide for his family. He is a man of very considerable academic ability and he has gained a number of qualifications since he escaped from prison. He needs more support in the sense that if he did get some reparations, that will boast him a lot. That will help him, not only financially (it is not only the money that is important here). To have an acknowledgment from Cameroon that what it did was wrong and was a crime will help to strengthen him and make his life a little easier. We deal with a lot of torture survivors and it is very difficult or impossible for any survivor to ever get over what happened to them. The best that can happen is that people learn to live with it and to cope. That is why we think justice is so important. Today he has had no justice. He has only had an acknowledgement by a UN body which is something in itself that he was believed and it is on public record now that what he said happened.  He is by no means fully recovered and probably never will be. If he can get a measure of justice which is what we are seeking for him, that will help a great deal as it often does for torture survivors. If they get some compensation, an acknowledgment from the government, some accountability, if some of the state officials who did wrong are brought to account, all of this helps. It makes people feel they were not just tortured and forgotten about.

Q What a father to son, what advise will you give Ebenezer to move on?

A

I will ask him to keep trying. We can only do what he asks us to do. We will encourage him to not give up, to keep instructing us to do what we can. Sooner or later, this will be resolved by the Cameroonian government.

 

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