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Cameroon English-Speaking Independence Group Members Jailed

In Cameroon, about 20 members of the anglophone pro-independence group, the Southern Cameroon National Council, have been imprisoned for more than a month without being charged. The group, which says the English-speaking minority is marginalized in Cameroon, has been banned by the government. Naomi Schwarz has more from VOA's regional bureau in Dakar.

In a letter smuggled out of prison and e-mailed to VOA, jailed Southern Cameroon National Council leader Nfor Ngala Nfor says he would welcome a charge of "secession." It carries either a life sentence or a death penalty.

The group is known by its acronym SCNC.

Nfor wrote, "I will see the charge of 'secession' as a Christmas gift to the SCNC and Southern Cameroonians as a whole. The onus will be on the Republic of Cameroon to prove by what instrument of international law it has extended its sovereignty westward."

He says his trial, if it ever happens, would mean the government would have to prove that Cameroon is legally a unified state.

The government has banned the SCNC and says any meeting of the group is illegal and grounds for arrest.

Nfor, along with about 20 other SCNC members, have been in prison for more than a month. They have not yet been charged with a crime, but a hearing to bring charges is scheduled again soon. Several hearings have been postponed because witnesses for the prosecution have been absent.

After World War One, the French and British divided up the rule of the then-German colony of Kamerun. At independence, the British provinces had the choice to join Nigeria or French-speaking Cameroon. Southern Cameroon chose to join the Republic of Cameroon as a separate state.

In 1972, in a public referendum, Cameroonians voted to become a single, unified state.

Since then, English-speaking Cameroonians have felt increasingly marginalized.

Tanyi Joseph Mbi is a lawyer for the jailed SCNC members. He says English-speaking areas are less developed.

"We do not have roads," he said. "We do not have petrol. It is more expensive in Southern Cameroon than in the Republic of Cameroon."

Mbi says even if the courts bring secession charges, they will have to prove that the SCNC members actually committed a crime.

"The court has a duty to prove to the entire community that these members have taken steps to secede. Because secession is not just by word of mouth, it is by action," he said.

A researcher for London-based Amnesty International, Godfrey Byaruhanga, says the detention represents an abuse of the right to free speech.

"They have not advocated nor have they used violence against the state," he said. "And, hence, we are certainly very concerned that the government of Cameroon continues to detain people who only are agitating, making their views known publicly without any recourse to violence."

"The government surely should allow them to express their views even if those views are not necessarily in concert with those of the government," he continued.

He says the founding charter of the African Union says borders must remain as at independence. It is under this statute, he says, that the government rejects Southern Cameroonians' drive for independence.