After 11 gruelling months over the fate of its staff, humanitarian healthcare provider, Doctors Without Borders, on January 10, announced that their staff held at the Buea Central Prison, and charged with terrorism-related offences, have finally been found not guilty, and acquitted by the Buea Military Tribunal.
In a statement released by MSF, the organisation said it is “extremely relieved at the acquittal of five of our staff, who faced trial in Cameroon, accused of complicity with secession. Four of the staff in question had to endure incarceration for many months.”
MSF recalled that, on the 26th of December 2021, their nurse and ambulance driver were arrested in Nguti in the Southwest Region, while transporting a patient with a gunshot wound to a hospital in Kumba.
“After being detained in prison for five months, for the charge of complicity with secessionists, both aid workers were provisionally released in May 2022. Two other colleagues, a community health worker and assistant field coordinator, were detained in January 2022 under the same charge while another was accused in absentia,” the statement partly read.
It further revealed that, “On the 1st of November 2022, the Buea Military Tribunal ruled ‘no case to answer’, regarding one of the aid workers in question, citing a lack of evidence. The MSF staff member was released soon after the ruling, having spent 10 months in prison. Finally, on the 29th of December, all remaining MSF staff members who had been detained were acquitted – the last of whom was released the following day. A judgement of acquittal was also declared regarding an MSF project coordinator who had been tried in absentia”.
Reacting to the news of the acquittal of their colleague, MSF coordinator in central Africa, Sylvain Groulx, stated: “We are enormously satisfied with the judgement that exonerates our five staff members – and, by extension, MSF as an organisation – of any wrongdoing”.
MSF deplores the fact that our staff were forced to endure almost a year of imprisonment, which caused untold distress and anguish for them and their families.
“MSF has categorically denied any complicity with armed groups or parties to any violent crisis or conflict. Our staff are guided by medical ethics – these accusations were groundless from the first instance, especially as the authorities knew exactly how we were providing medical support,” he said.
“Accusing medical personnel for simply doing their job – treating patients in front of them – is simply against all medical and humanitarian ethics and laws,” Groulx added.
The detention of its staff forced MSF to suspend its activities in the Southwest Region. Following the acquittal of its staff, the organisation stated that they are keen to restart their much-needed lifesaving services, “but basic preconditions must be met to ensure that our medical activities can be conducted in a safe and secure environment, so that patients and staff are protected”, a MSF press statement said.
Groulx regretted that despite attempts to open a channel of dialogue with the Cameroon government, to ensure MSF teams can continue vital activities in Southwest Region, the government has been unresponsive.
He said it has made it difficult to reach an agreement that ensures working conditions guarantee the safety of MSF teams and patients. As such, he says, this prevents the organisation from resuming its life-saving mission in the Region.
He, however, stated that MSF remains, “ready to continue discussions with the Cameroonian authorities to analyse the feasibility of restarting medical and humanitarian activities in the Southwest region under such preconditions.”
He regretted that, in the Northwest Region, having been going through the same crisis like in the Southwest, the organisation was suspended by the Cameroon Government, and the suspension has still not been lifted.
MSF revealed that, since 2019, its medical teams in the Southwest Region have provided more than 400,000 medical consultations, and more than 68,000 consultations in health facilities that they support.
In 2021, MSF-supported facilities also assisted 2,284 births. MSF ambulance teams, the only emergency referral system in the Southwest Region until the suspension of its activities, transported more than 8,000 patients for urgent medical care, the organisation said.
The detention of MSF staff blurred Cameroon’s image, given that it has signed and ratified the Geneva Conventions in 1963, the 1st and 2nd Additional Protocols in 1984, and Protocol III last year 2021, and then went ahead to continually violate agreements it signed and ratified, by continually harassing and imprisoning healthcare providers for doing what they took an oath to do – saving lives.
Article 16 of the first Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention, to which Cameroon is a party, states: “No health-care professionals may be punished for having carried out activities compatible with medical ethics, such as providing impartial care”. Yet Cameroon has continually done just the opposite.