Friday 19 September 2014

From petty criminality to endless prison custody


Somewhere in Cameroon, a young man we will fictitiously call Thomas stole a few electronic devices from a lady's house. Caught by one of the lady's relative, Thomas was severely beaten before being arrested by the police. Here starts the long story of a 16-year-old boy victim of the unadapted and slow Cameroonian judicial system.


Although a minor should never be thrown in prison according to Cameroonian law, Thomas has just celebrated his seventeenth anniversary this week, among his minors inmates, hardly separated from the overcrowded adult cells. Imagine how joyful can a birthday be in a place where even teenagers have to struggle for their daily food. And try to explain why a presumed innocent young man can spend eight months in prison, being called every since and then to attend to the repeated adjournment of his trial.


Thomas' family, back in the village, is lost in the complexity of justice. Not long ago, the complainant proposed to Thomas' father, living modestly from his work as a bricklayer, an amicable settlement: the withdrawal of the complaint for the equivalent of 20$. Hoping to see his son out of the prison as soon as possible, the father gathered his resources to pay what the complainant demanded. It did not bear fruits, given that the woman disappeared with the money, maintaining the judicial proceedings. Since that event, the father was not able to visit his son, lacking money to take the 45-minute ride from his neighborhood to the prison. When an NGO eventually brought him to sign the bail for his son to be released until the beginning of the trial, the file was nowhere to be found in the court registry - "come again tomorrow".


These days, eight months after Thomas' arrest, the officials in charge of the investigations declared the preliminary steps as finished and assigned Thomas' case to a court, cancelling the option of a release on bail. Nevertheless, due to a mistake on their side, Thomas has been committed to trial at the wrong tribunal, the one for adults. The simple transfer of his file to the appropriate court is likely to last for one more month - and then at last, the slow process of a proper trial is going to begin.


How come that a minor can be left on his own in a prison? How can one explain why he and his family have not been informed that there are ways to enforce an amicable settlement which was not respected? Why is legal aid not provided to a family which cannot even afford to pay a visit to its son? By how many weeks can a stupid mistake by an absent-minded civil servant extend somebody's remand? How would a year in prison influence the rest of a teenager's life? As long as these questions are to be asked, the Cameroonian judicial and penitentiary system have a long way to go.

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