Atoh Walter M. Tchemi, a prominent Cameroonian human rights lawyer, knows firsthand the harassment and threats that comes with his job. But even he wasn’t expecting to be beaten up by the police when he went to meet a client.
About 10:30 a.m. today, December 22, Tchemi went to a garage on Mulango Street in Kumba, a city in the South-West region of Cameroon, to talk to a client, a truck driver allegedly involved in an accident. The policemen present had taken the driver’s identity card and driving license, and, without showing an arrest warrant, ordered the driver to accompany them to a local police station.
“While trying to find out what was happening, the policemen started to beat me from all directions with the butt of their guns and threw me in their van like a piece of wood, accusing me of subverting police authority,” Tchemi said. “My clothes were destroyed, and I have bruises all over my body.”
Tchemi said that at the station, a police commander told him to go home, which he initially refused, intending to bring legal action. “Given the snail pace of justice in Cameroon on issues concerning lawyers,” Tchemi said. “I decided to let go.”
Lawyers have become easy targets for the authorities in Cameroon, according to a recent report by the international organization Lawyers for Lawyers. Arbitrary arrest, harassment, and other forms of police brutality, including verbal and physical assault, against lawyers are common. In May 2021, gendarmes in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, arrested another prominent rights lawyer, Amungwa Tanyi Nicodemus, on bogus charges of inciting terrorism for possessing photographs that show evidence of abuses in the country’s English-speaking regions. In November 2020, security forces used tear gas and live ammunition to disperse lawyers in a courtroom in Douala. The lawyers were protesting the arrest of two colleagues accused of corruption.
The arbitrary nature of Tchemi’s beating highlights the risk lawyers take in Cameroon. They should not be targeted for doing their jobs and they should be able to work without fear of harassment or assault. The authorities should promptly, credibly, and impartially investigate today’s attack on Tchemi. They should also issue a public statement reinforcing that abuses against lawyers won’t be tolerated – and make sure it isn’t.