Cameroon President Paul Biya attends the Paris Peace Forum, France, November 12, 2019.   REUTERS/Charles Platiau
Cameroon's President Paul Biya announces to decrease crowding in 78 prisons due to concerns about the coronavirus spreading in overcrowded facilities.

YAOUNDE - Cameroon's president has announced steps that will lead to the release of thousands of prisoners due to concerns about the coronavirus spreading in overcrowded facilities.  However, separatists fighting for an independent English-speaking state and officials jailed for corruption are excluded.  Rights groups also note that Biya's political opponents and journalists critical of his rule will remain behind bars.

Since late Wednesday, Cameroon state radio has read out an order signed by President Paul Biya to decrease crowding in the central African state’s 78 prisons.

"The president of the republic hereby decrees as follows. Article 1. Persons whose sentences have become final as at the date of signature of this decree shall benefit from remissions as follows. One. Commutation of the death sentence to life imprisonment in favor of persons initially sentenced to death."

Under the presidential decision, life sentences are reduced to 25 years, those for whom life sentences had already been reduced to 25 years will have five years taken off their sentences. Ten-year sentences will be cut by three years, five-year sentences will be cut by two years, and three-year sentences will be cut by one year.

Lawyer Luc Kisob who argues the government’s position in corruption and terrorism cases, said not everyone will benefit from the initiative, although Biya has the constitutional power to free whoever he wants.

"The constitution authorizes the head of state to commute and to remit sentences of convicts. The prerogative rests therefore on the head of state to choose who to pardon or who not to pardon, and in this case certain kinds of offenses have been excluded from those who shall benefit from the measure, like offenses of terrorism, misappropriation of public property, tax fraud, customs fraud, sexual offenses or offenses which touch on the security of the state," said the lawyer.

FILE - Deployment of the police at the Kondengui Central Prison, Yaounde, Cameroon, July 23, 2019. (Moki Kindzeka/VOA)

Others excluded from the order are political prisoners such as Mamadou Mota, vice president of the opposition Cameroon Renaissance Movement Party, who was arrested while protesting the results of the October 2018 presidential election,  and separatists fighting for the independence of the English-speaking minority in the majority French-speaking country.

Rights activist Njugoy Ardo of the Cameroon Center for Democracy and Governance said by messaging app that the 86-year-old Biya has missed an opportunity to make peace with his people.

He said Biya, by not pardoning political prisoners and separatist leaders who realize the coronavirus is bringing people together against a common enemy in COVID-19, has missed an opportunity to reconcile with the people he has ruled with an iron fist for close to 40 years. He said Biya still can make history by ordering the release of people he has declared his enemies just because they do not agree with him remaining in power.

Others who will not benefit from the order are Biya’s former prime minister Ephraim Inoni, ex-minister of finance Abah Abah Polycarp, and Jean Mariie Atangana Mebara, a former minister of higher education.

Some have been jailed for more than a decade. Biya ordered their arrest saying that they plundered state resources, but their lawyers say they are being punished because they advised Biya to step down as president.

The presidential decree does not specify how many people will benefit from the order. The Justice Ministry is now examining prisoners’ files.

However, Ardo and Kisob said at least 10,000 prisoners may be freed.  Cameroon currently has 30,000 prisoners in detention facilities constructed for barely 9,000.