A military court in Cameroon has handed a life sentence to the head of the country’s anglophone separatist movement, Julius Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, and nine of his followers, lawyers said.
The 10 were convicted of charges including “terrorism and secession”, the state’s lawyer, Martin Luther Achet, told Agence France-Presse.
The sentence was confirmed by a lawyer for the separatists, Joseph Fru, who condemned what he called a “parody of justice”.
The defendants refused to recognise the right of the military tribunal in Yaoundé to try them. Their lawyers have yet to say whether they will file an appeal.
Ayuk Tabe, a charismatic 54-year-old computer engineer by training, was the first self-proclaimed president of “Ambazonia” – a breakaway state declared in October 2017 in two English-speaking regions of the central African country.
The government responded with a military crackdown.
Attacks by both sides have left 1,850 dead, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG) thinktank, while the UN says 530,000 people have fled their homes.
English-speakers account for about a fifth of Cameroon’s population of 24 million, who are majority French-speaking. Anglophones are mainly concentrated in two western areas, the North-west and South-west regions, that were incorporated into the French-speaking state after the colonial era in Africa wound down six decades ago.
Anglophones have chafed for years at perceived discrimination in education, law and economic opportunities at the hands of the francophone majority.
Ayuk Tabe is part of the political branch of the separatist group that supports dialogue with President Paul Biya.
But the influence of moderates waned in 2017 as Biya, who has been in power for 36 years, rejected demands for autonomy and radicals in the movement gained the ascendancy.
In January 2018, Ayuk Tabe was arrested with 46 other separatists in the Nigerian capital Abuja.
They were then handed over to Cameroon – a move that was ruled illegal by a Nigerian court in March this year.
In late May, Ayuk Tabe said he was willing to take part in talks with the government, provided this took place abroad and the government released all who had been detained since the start of the anglophone crisis.
Last month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the security forces of committing “brazen crimes” against citizens, including unlawful killings and use of excessive force.
The authorities, while rejecting general criticism, have acknowledged a small number of abuses.
In June, the defence ministry said it would prosecute seven soldiers suspected of summarily killing two women and their two children, a video of which was distributed on the internet to widespread outrage.
The unrest has crippled the economy of the North-west and South-west regions and had a knock-on effect across the country.
More than one in six people in Cameroon – 4.3 million – need humanitarian aid, an increase of 30% from 2018, according to UN aid officials.