Language barrier mars smooth court proceedings in Cameroon

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Language differences played out in court in Cameroon during an appeal hearing against the life sentences handed down last August to Anglophone separatist leader Sisiku Ayuk Tabe and nine others.

They were found guilty on 10 counts, including terrorism and destruction of public property for their part in a separatist rebellion in two English-speaking regions in a country where French is spoken by the majority of people.

At the start of the hearing, many of the separatists raised their fingers to their ears to signal that they did not understand what the judge was saying as he was speaking in French.

The judge abruptly ended the deliberations after turning down their requests to speak in English.

Lawyers representing the separatist leaders criticised the judge’s decision.

“The judge refused to speak in English and abruptly adjourned the matter in an outrageous manner to 20 August 2020,” Joseph Akuwiyadze, one of the defence lawyers, told the BBC.

“His refusal to speak in English is in gross violation of section 354 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which is mandatory for the court to speak a language that the accused understands so long as it’s one of the official languages of Cameroon, that means English and French.”

The problems in North-West and South-West Cameroon began in 2016 following the government’s decision to increase the use of French in schools and courts in these mainly English-speaking regions.

It led to street protests which morphed the next year into a political crisis following a military crackdown. Separatist fighters then emerged, pushing for the creation of a new state called Ambazonia.

The fighting, now in its fourth year, has left at least 3,000 people dead and more than a million forced from their homes, according to the United Nations.

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