YAOUNDE, CAMEROON - Many families in Cameroon are inquiring about the whereabouts of their loved ones after rioting was reported in two of the country's main prisons. Inmates at a prison in the capital, Yaounde, and Buea, one of the main cities in the Anglophone southwest region, are protesting the government's crackdown on the Anglophone separatist movement. The inmates also have other grievances.
University student Terence Meme, 21, says he has been searching for his father, Patrick Meme, since he heard that inmates of the Yaounde Central Prison at Kondengui began rioting.
"We have not heard from him and we have not seen him for the past two days and we are very worried because he is a diabetic patient and he needs regular assistance and health care," Meme said.
Terence says his father was arrested in the English-speaking northwestern town of Ndu in February 2017 and transferred to Yaounde, where he has been in pre-trial detention as a suspected separatist fighter.
Last Monday, detained suspected armed separatists from the English-speaking northwest and the southwest regions began protesting what they called marginalization by French-speaking inmates and prison staff. They denounced overcrowding, judicial delays and what they described as deplorable conditions at the Yaounde prison, which was constructed for 750 people but now holds more than 6,000 inmates.
Demonstrators included jailed supporters of Maurice Kamto, the head of the opposition Cameroon Renaissance Movement party, or CRM. He is being held at the Yaounde prison in connection with a protest that is distinct from the separatist campaign. The CRM had previously asked for dialogue to resolve tensions between the French- and English-speaking regions.
The secretary-general of the CRM, Christopher Ndong, also serves as Kamto's lawyer. Ndong says since the rioting began, the CRM has not been able to determine the whereabouts of several of their supporters, including CRM Vice President Mamadou Mota. Mota has been in prison for leading protests seeking Kamto's release.
Ndong says several of the CRM supporters were seen being brutally taken away.
"It is another aggravated situation where the government after arresting all of our leaders for a peaceful protest march is doing things with impunity," said Ndong. "You even see the brutality the police were exercising. In fact, it is doing this type of criminal act with impunity. That is not the kind of government we think should rule us."
In a release, communication minister and government spokesperson Rene Emmanuel Sadi refuted reports that some inmates were killed but said many people were wounded and two were rushed to the hospital.
Sadi said about 170 inmates who were identified as leaders of the rioting had been "arrested." He did not specify where they were taken, but said some inmates had been moved to other facilities to make the Kondengui prison less crowded.
Rights group Amnesty International has called on authorities in Cameroon to refrain from using excessive force against prisoners, and independently and effectively investigate the use of firearms and live ammunition reported during the riot.
A second riot was reported at the Buea Central Prison on Tuesday. The government said the military intervened to restore order, but provided no other details.
The Cameroon National Commission For Human Rights and Freedoms reports an 29,000 people are being held in the country's 80 prisons. Commission Chairperson Chemuta Divine Banda says most of the prisons are congested.
"Conditions are unbearable. Unlivable. Escaping would be a natural instinct. Prisons should not be torture centers," Chemuta said. "We have said this clear and clear."
Scores of people from Cameroon's English-speaking regions have been arrested over the last two years during the conflict in which separatists have sought to form an independent state called Ambazonia.
The United Nations estimates the conflict has left about 2,000 people dead and displaced more than 500,000 others since late 2017.