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Cameroon Frees English Speakers Accused of Separatist Activity

FILE - A still image taken from a video shows riot police walkin along a street in the English-speaking city of Buea, Cameroon, Oct. 1, 2017.

More than 100 people in Cameroon, who had been arrested for attempting to create an English-speaking state, were freed Friday. President Paul Biya had ordered legal proceedings against them to be stopped a day earlier.

Security was tight at the Yaounde military tribunal where hundreds of English-speaking Cameroonians gathered Friday to watch the release of 120 detainees a day after President Paul Biya ordered that all legal proceedings against them be stopped. Another 169 are reportedly still held in several detention camps around the country.

Thirty-four-year-old Vincent Bouma was the first to regain his freedom after seven months. Bouma says he was arrested in the northwestern town of Bafut and taken to Cameroon's capital, Yaounde.

"I am very, very happy," said Bouma. "I am going to tell the people that there is nothing wrong in the country and that our people who are in the bush, let them reason and come back."

Thirty-six-year-old Rajali Adjara, from the English-speaking northwestern village of Sabga, says she traveled to Yaounde overnight, hoping her husband, elder brother and neighbor, arrested 17 months ago, were among the detainees released. Unfortunately, only her brother regained freedom. She says President Biya should have freed everyone.

"The best thing for him to do is to call for dialogue. He needs to dialogue with the people and release all the detainees involved in the crisis," Adjara said. "We have seen him dialogue with Boko Haram fighters. He has even paid ransom. If he can do [the] same (dialogue) in the northwest and southwest, then I think, peace will return."

Tatah Julius, whose father was released, says Biya's initiative was not enough to bring peace.

"If he wants true peace to reign, remove these military who are shooting people on a daily basis," Tatah said. "Remove them from our towns, our streets. Remove the military cars, armored cars that are walking the streets every day and then we know that yes, you are looking for a lasting and peaceful solution to this problem."

The conflict that led to the arrest of 289 people began in 2016, when teachers and lawyers in Cameroon's English-speaking region complained about discrimination by the French-speaking majority in education and the justice system. The government responded with a crackdown that led to a violent separatist movement to create an English-speaking state within Cameroon.

Ngaibe Philippe, one of the lawyers defending English-speaking detainees, says Biya should be tried for refusing to respect Cameroon's laws and taking people charged with simple crimes to the military tribunal.
"How on Earth would you take a crisis of misdemeanor and they are judged in a military court," Ngaibe said. "Now a majority like our president, Sisseko (Ayuk Tabe), fall under felonies. It means those ones are going to remain in jail while a minute number of 289 are released under misdemeanor. This is absolute nonsense and it is not going to change the face of the struggle in anyway."

Cameroon's defense minister, Joseph Beti Assomo, said those who have received the president's pardon exclude convicts charged with terrorism, inciting violence and taking up weapons against the state. Such may face death penalties, he said.