Three women, who were arrested on suspicion of belonging to the Boko Haram jihadist group, were at a retrial in Cameroon this Friday on charges of espionage. The case, which dates back to 2014, is postponed to July 24 for the fourth time in the absence of the chief judge. The women have been in custody for over five years.
The prisoners are Marie Dawandala, Damaris Doukouya and Martha Weteya.
When they left their hometown in northern Cameroon six years ago in search of a better life, they could not have imagined that they would later fall behind bars.
In 2014, the women, aged 17, had crossed the Nigerian border with their husbands to work as domestic servers.
It was at the height of the Boko Haram uprising, marked by the infamous kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from the Nigerian city of Chibok.
As the rebellious attacks increased, the three women were forced to flee back across the border, as did countless others to find security.
When they returned, they were arrested by Cameroonian authorities, accused of belonging to the same militant group from which they had narrowly escaped.
“They ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time” – Marie-Lina Samuel, Africa’s project coordinator at ECPM (Together against the death penalty)
Try against three girls who fled from Boko Haram
Wrong place, wrong time
“They were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” explains Marie-Lina Samuel, Africa’s project coordinator at the ECPM (Together Against the Death Penalty) organization.
“If they [Cameroonian authorities] could have taken someone else, they would have taken someone else. They were there, not by accident, because they ran from Boko Haram. But they were there when the Cameroonian authorities decided to take what they thought were terrorists, “she told RFI.
In 2014, Boko Haram expanded armed attacks on northern Cameroon, leading to a ground campaign by the Cameroonian military.
The assault saw warriors and Nigerians pouring into Cameroon’s north, leading to a wave of random arrests of alleged Boko Haram supporters.
“Between 2014 and 2016, more than 200 people were sentenced to death after very speedy trials, without meeting a lawyer or sometimes even having legal representation,” says Samuel.
“They would come into the court, say two words and be sentenced to death.”
This is what happened to Martha, Marie and Damaris in April 2016.
They were brought before Maroua military court and charged with espionage, conspiracy to commit insurrection and membership in an armed gang. All three received the death penalty. None of them understood why.
The preliminary investigation had been conducted entirely in French, a language none of them spoke.
“Everything happened around them and about them without them understanding what was happening and what was at stake,” comments Samuel, condemning the absence of a fair trial.
“When they were sentenced to death, none of them understood. It was their prison supervisors who later informed them,” she said.
French is still the official language of Cameroon’s administration, which has often left many English speakers feeling marginalized. The language problem is the root of the country’s Anglophone crisis that has triggered deadly protests in the northwest and southwest of the country, including several arrests for espionage.
However, unlike separatists, “these women did nothing to threaten the state,” Samuel insists, pointing to the lack of evidence against them.
The death penalty choked
In 2019, recognizing that it lacked jurisdiction over minors, the military court overturned the death sentences of women.
Their legal battle, which had begun three years earlier, should have ended there. But it didn’t. The prosecutor decided to try to try the women again in a civil court. The trial scheduled for Friday, June 26, was eventually postponed to July 24.
According to sources, the chief judge was unable to show up and the investigating judge decided it was too sensitive to record himself.
Where does that leave the three women?
In limbo, Samuel argues. “They have been in prison now for over five years. Two of them have children and have had to bring them up under very difficult conditions.”
The Covid-19 outbreak has put additional strain, forcing the mothers to hand over their children to a religious group to restrict the transmission of the virus.
“They hope it won’t be a fight again to get their kids back,” spells Samuel, who hopes their legal misery will end now that they have a “better-qualified” defense lawyer.
“So far it’s been unfair after injustice,” she admits. “I guess right now we have to wait and see what happens.”