Cameroonian authorities must immediately end the six-month illegal detention of 84 children – some as young as five years-old – who were rounded up during a raid on Quranic schools in the far north of the country, Amnesty International said today.
On 20 December 2014, Cameroonian security forces raided a series of schools in a town called Guirvidig, arresting 84 children and 43 men – including many teachers. All but three of the children are under 15 years old and 47 are under 10. The authorities claim the schools were being used as fronts for ‘Boko Haram training camps’.
Six months on, the children remain detained in a children’s centre in Maroua, the main city of the northern region, despite having been charged with no crimes. In the absence of provisions from local authorities, Unicef provided mattresses for the centre while the World Food Programme has been providing food stocks, which are now running low.
“It is unthinkable to keep children so young away from their parents for so long, and with so little support. The children want nothing more than to go home and be with their families. They do not deserve to become collateral damage in the war against Boko Haram,” said Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International Deputy regional director for West and Central Africa.
“Detaining young children will do nothing to protect Cameroonians living under the threat of Boko Haram. The Government must stand by its promise to respect human rights in the fight against Boko Haram, and release these children so they can be reunited with their families without delay.”
Over the last year Cameroon has significantly scaled up the presence of security forces in the far northern region of the country in response to a series of large-scale Boko Haram attacks on Cameroonian territory. Numerous civilians have been executed and kidnapped.
On 20 December, a joint force of police, gendarmes and army sealed off neighbourhoods of Guirvidig and raided schools that local authorities had accused of recruiting children for Boko Haram. No attacks had previously been reported in the town.
During the raid, witnesses report that the men and boys were rounded up and made to wait for hours in a public square before being forced to board trucks. The children were kept in custody at the gendarmerie headquarters for four days before being transferred to a juvenile centre under the control of the Ministry of Social Affairs. The men were taken to the Central Prison in Maroua, where they still remain in detention in extremely poor conditions.
One child told an Amnesty International researcher what happened: “We were reading the Quran when the security forces stormed our school. They asked for ID cards and interrogated us. They said they would dig our grave and throw us into it. We were scared. Then they roughed up our teachers… some among them had blood all over their faces.”
According to witness testimonies gathered by Amnesty International, the security forces also forcibly entered several houses confiscating assets and asking residents for bribes. One parent saw people giving money to the security forces to secure the release of their arrested sons. “That day, I had no money and they took my kid,” he said.
A number of men were beaten during their arrest, including one 39 year-old Quranic teacher who was repeatedly hit with the butt of a gun until he began vomiting blood. Amnesty International met with him at the prison in Maroua. He was not able to hold his head in an upright position and needed assistance to walk. He has been transferred to the hospital to be treated for tuberculosis but is yet to receive any treatment for injuries sustained during his arrest.
Amnesty International researchers have raised the case of the detained children directly with many different Cameroonian authorities. While most recognise that the children pose no threat, none had taken responsibility to facilitate their release and reintegration, leaving the children detained in limbo.
Amnesty International is calling for all children under the age of 15 to be immediately released and returned to their families, and those over 15 to be immediately released unless a recognisable charge is brought against them. 15 is the minimum age of criminal responsibility according to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Cameroon is party.
Amnesty also calls on Cameroonian authorities to open an independent enquiry into the mass arrests and subsequent detention at Guirvidig, as well ensuring fair trials and humane prison conditions for the men held during the same operation.