YAOUNDE (Reuters) - Cameroon security forces prevented Amnesty International from holding a press conference on Wednesday to call for the release of three young men jailed in 2015 for sharing a joke.
A dozen uniformed and plainclothes officers closed a conference room in a hotel in the capital Yaounde where the meeting was scheduled to take place, the London-based human rights group said in a statement.
The government confirmed it had thwarted the press conference, citing a “threat to public order”.
Rights groups have criticized increasing repression under the 35-year-old rule of President Paul Biya, including a recent crackdown on protests in its Anglophone region in which dozens were jailed and the internet switched off for three months.
Amnesty had planned to present over 310,000 letters and petitions protesting at the arrest and sentencing of Fomusoh Ivo, Afuh Nivelle Nfor and Azah Levis Gob for sharing a text message joke about the strict academic entrance requirements of Islamist militant group Boko Haram, which has committed a series of suicide attacks in Cameroon in the past few years.
“Boko Haram recruits young people from 14 years old and above. Conditions for recruitment: 4 subjects at GCE, including religion,” the text message said, a joke both about the Islamists and the difficulty of finding a job in Cameroon.
A teacher discovered the message and reported it to the police. The trio were arrested, jailed in January 2015 and kept in chains for months, Amnesty said. They were found guilty of “non-denunciation of terrorism acts” in November 2016 and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Their appeal hearing is set for June 15.
“If a demonstration is a threat to public order, the authorities have the right to ban it. That was what was done to the Amnesty International (press) conference,” Communications Minister Issa Tchiroma told Reuters by telephone, adding that this was a “precaution to maintain security.”
Political tensions in Cameroon have simmered in the last seven months against Biya’s long rule. Violent unrest including strikes have raised pressure on Biya at home and internationally ahead of the next presidential election in 2018.
Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Tim Cocks and Mark Heinrich