YAOUNDE - Lawyers in Cameroon on Monday declared an indefinite strike to protest what they call government interference in their profession. The stop work action, which follows a five-day strike last week that got no government response, means courtrooms across the country will remain closed until a deal is struck.
Only the hissing noise of air conditioners was heard at the usually busy Mfou courtroom in Cameroon’s capital Yaounde on Monday.
Forty-two-year old teacher Magnus Anong says he is witness to a case concerning his younger brother. He says he found a locked courtroom.
"My brother was intercepted by the police for rape and we believe he is innocent," he said. "We have been expecting justice to be rendered here at the Mfou court of first instance but no lawyer is present. See for yourself. Court doors are locked. This is very terrible. I don't know how much time he will spend again awaiting trial."
The Cameroon Bar Council held an initial five-day strike last week to protest an incident on November 27 in the city of Douala.
The Bar Council says security forces tried to intervene in a case there, accusing lawyers of corruption. When the lawyers insisted that police leave the courtroom, the police attacked them with tear gas.
Evaristus Morfaw is president of the Bar Council’s general assembly. He says lawyers will not attend court sessions to protest what he says is the maltreatment of lawyers by the government.
"It is the persecution of lawyers in Cameroon," he said. "Their rights have been violated. You know of the events that took place in Douala when the courtroom was invaded by armed uniformed people and lawyers were beaten up. Lawyers who are supposed to carry out their activities independently and in a liberal manner are seen to be pushed here and there. We have to tell the world that all is not well."
After the Douala incident, two prominent attorneys, including human rights lawyer Richard Tamfu, were arrested on charges of violence and corruption. They were released after pressure from the Bar Council.
The Bar Council also asked the government to let lawyers do their jobs without further interference. Lawyers say they are often denied access to clients in detention centers, and accuse the government of extracting confessions from suspects through the use of torture and inducements.
Morfaw says the government did not respond, triggering what he calls an indefinite strike.
Morfaw says the consequences will be heavy for the government and those seeking justice.
"In criminal matters especially felonies where an accused person risks an imprisonment term of life or capital punishment, the assistance of counsel is mandatory and once the counsel is not there, the matter has to be adjourned. And if this is done several times, that is tantamount to delay and justice delayed is justice denied."
When contacted by a reporter, a government spokesperson declined to comment on the strike.
Political analyst Eric Mathias Owona Nguini of the University of Yaounde says relations between the government and lawyers have always been sour. He says the government should open up to dialogue to solve problems with lawyers.
"The process of law and justice should not be captured by political interest," he said. "The state should be able to listen to what the lawyers are asking. But at the same time, the lawyers should be aware of the fact that they don't need to be instrumentalized by political parties."
Nguini’s comment is a reference to a meeting last month between a group of lawyers and opposition leader Maurice Kamto.
Kamto, himself a lawyer, insists he won the October 2018 presidential elections in Cameroon and his victory was stolen by long-serving President Paul Biya.