Cameroon’s main opposition leader, Maurice Kamto, has gone on trial in a military court in Yaoundé, along with 90 of his supporters. Kamto, who was the runner-up in last year’s presidential election, is accused of insurrection and rebellion, and could face the death penalty.
Kamto arrived in court on Friday under tight security. The trial venue was protected by 200 police officers in anti-riot gear, while others patrolled the area in pick-up trucks.
There had been calls from the opposition leader’s followers for a protest rally outside the court.
Kamto, together with several dozen of his political allies and supporters, faces charges of insurrection, hostility to the motherland and rebellion, crimes which, in theory at least, could carry the death penalty.
The head of the opposition Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon (MRC) was arrested in January after months of peaceful opposition protests denouncing the results of the October 2018 presidential election.
The MRC alleges that the election was rigged in favour of President Paul Biya, who has been in power for 36 years. Kamto claims that he himself won the election.
Cameroon’s former colonial ruler France, the United States and the European Union have repeatedly called for his release.
“There is no justification for Mr Kamto and his supporters to have been incarcerated for eight months in these conditions,” their French lawyer Antoine Vey told the French news agency, AFP.
“None of them took part in acts of violence, none called for acts of violence or rebellion, there is no reason for their arrest other than a political motive.”
Ready for justice
The crackdown against the opposition has caused outrage among rights groups and many western governments.
In March, the US assistant secretary of state for African Affairs Tibor Nagy, told RFI that Cameroon would be “very wise” to release Kamto because his detention is widely perceived as politically motivated.
A top European Union official criticised the arrests and the military court’s “disproportionate” proceedings against them.
France in May also demanded the release of Kamto and his supporters.
On Monday, just days ahead of their trial, Kamto and his fellow defendants said they were “ready to face justice so the truth would come out,” demanding free public and press access to the courtroom.
“Mr Kamto is full of confidence,” his spokesman Olivier Bibou Nissack told journalists.
Conflict on all fronts
The authorities in Cameroon dismiss claims from the defendants and others that this a political trial designed to “decapitate” the opposition.
Along with the political protests, President Biya is facing a struggle on other fronts.
Since 2017, fighting between the army and English-speaking separatists demanding independence in two western regions has killed hundreds, forced nearly 500,000 people from their homes and filled jails with anglophone activists accused of militancy.
In the north of the country, Boko Haram’s nearly 10-year Islamist insurgency which is based in northeastern Nigeria, has more recently spilled over into Cameroon.