Two months after riots, children remain in prison

Many people under the age of 18 were arrested and imprisoned during riots over high food prices in February and more than two months later some are still behind bars.

“Currently we have five minors being detained at the central prison,” said Joseph Tsala Amougou, the warden of Douala’s central prison. “None of them have yet been tried.”

But human rights groups said they had evidence of at least eight minors who were arrested during the riots and taken to the prison where they remain.

Even worse, Alice Kom, a lawyer in Douala told IRIN that all eight had been illegally convicted by a court and sentenced to serve time. “What [the children] did was not an offence that can be punished by sending them to prison,” she said.

Imprisoning children for misdemeanours was made illegal under a 2007 amendment to Cameroonian penal law, she said.

The law states that people under the age of 14 can only be imprisoned for murder while people between 14 and 18 of age must have committed felonies. “Otherwise the warden may not authorise a minor’s imprisonment,” Kom said.

In 2005, some 800 minors were incarcerated in 19 prisons in Cameroonian receiving an average sentence of seven years, according to research by the non-governmental organisation Défense Enfants International (DEI).

In the central prison in Douala the young prisoners live in particularly unpleasant conditions. According to prison records, 3,792 prisoners are currently incarcerated in the facility which was designed to accommodate no more than 700.

Minors frequently come into contact with adult inmates, the prison warden, Amougou, told IRIN. “There is a system of separation but it is not very effective,” he said.

“Unfortunately minors often find themselves alongside criminals… [including] paedophiles and rapists,” he said.

In 2003, the UN Committee Against Torture recommended that minors in Cameroon’s prisons be separated from adults or that the state build special prisons for them.

The prison warden said the government has not yet constructed such facilities.

Ze Messomo, a former prisoner who is now a member of the Association of Christians for the Abolition of Torture said locking children up with adults will only create a future generation of criminals. “[The children] will learn to do much worse things than they knew before,” he said.