Cameroon - slowest justice system in the world?

Overworked investigating judges and a lack of lawyers leads to inordinate delays in Bafang, Cameroon.

Slate Afrique reports that the inmates of Bafang prison, in the west of Cameroon, are tired of waiting. After multiple court appearances and being put under advisement, they are still awaiting a verdict. When will they know how many years of imprisonment they have received if convicted? No one can tell.

Accused of aggravated robbery, Claude Mbesso has been before a judge several times. He has been waiting 14 years for the verdict in his trial."I am awaiting my judgment day for many years. I do not know my situation. "

Lakeu Djeuka Elvis, his cellmate, has been in prison for four years: "I have appeared several times. My case was taken under advisement. So far I'm waiting. "

The superintendent of the prison say this slowness is due to the insufficient number of judges in Cameroon. In practice it is only the court files pursued by an agent or a lawyer which move forward, and in Bafang, it is also very difficult to have access to legal assistance. Lawyers have to come from other cities, Bafoussam, Nkongsamba, Douala and Yaounde, and it's expensive.

This situation is replicated in many other prisons in Cameroon. Elvis Fonuy Luma has not left Bafoussam central prison since his arrest in April 2004 although he was acquitted for facts not established in November 2007.

Even the former Health Minister, Urbain Olanguena Awono, is in the same situation. Arrested in 2008 for embezzlement, he has been in custody at the prison Kondengui (Yaoundé) for almost four years.

Cameroon has more than 120 prisons across the country.

Many international NGOs such as Amnesty International, as well as local NGOs, such as the Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture, have denounced the slowness of the judicial system, lack of access to equal justice, violations of the presumption of innocence, and arbitrary detention in Cameroon. Furthermore, prisons are unsafe, insecure, and overcrowded.

Yet according to the Criminal Procedure Code of Cameroon: "No one shall be held under preventive detention beyond eighteen months, the maximum extension possible ..." and a constitutional law from January 1996 to guarantee access to justice.

Furthemore Article 584 of the Criminal Procedure Code stipulates  that "The President of the Tribunal de Grande Instance of the place of arrest or detention of a person, or any other sitting judge of that Court designated by him, is competent to hear petitions for immediate release, based on the illegality of an arrest or detention or failure to comply with formalities prescribed by law ..."

But without lawyers to bring such petitions, detainees like Claude Mbesso remain in pre-trial detention indefinitely.

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