When an Amnesty International delegation visited Cameroon in August 2010, they found that conditions at prisons were appalling.
At New Bell prison where Cameroonian author Bertrand Zepherin Teyou was held, the situation was not different. Officially designed to accommodate 700 people, the New Bell prison in Douala had more than 2,453 detainees in August 2010.
“The detainees are in an overcrowded and life-threatening environment – some have irons on their feet – and there is a dire lack of adequate food and medical care,” Tawanda Hondora, deputy director of the Africa program at Amnesty International, said at the time.
“The guards are not sufficiently trained and are ill-equipped to deal with such a large number of detainees, a situation which regularly gives rise to unrest and attempted escape, some of which are fatal,” Hondora added.
For months, Teyou had to survive inside the four walls of New Bell prison, even suffering from heavy bleeding caused by acute hemorrhoids, a condition made worse by his poor prison diet.
And this was all because he couldn’t pay the court fine after he was arrested for writing a book about the country’s first lady.
Teyou was arrested in a hotel in November 2010 while trying to launch a book he had written about Chantal Biya, the wife of Cameroon’s President Paul Biya.
Teyou had hired a room at the Somatel Hotel for the signing of his book, La Belle de la République bananière: Chantal Biya, de la rue au palais (The Banana Republic’s Beauty: Chantal Biya, from the street to the palace).
The book is about Chantal’s modest beginnings to her rise as Cameroon’s first lady. But just before the book was about to be launched in the presence of the media, management of the hotel said they would no longer allow him to use the venue.
Security forces soon arrived, arrested him and whisked him to a police station in Douala. There, he was detained and charged with contempt of a personality (outrage à personnalité) and unlawful assembly (manifestation illégale).
On November 10, 2010, Teyou was tried by the High Court (Tribunal de première instance) in Douala, which found him guilty of the charges.
He was sentenced to a fine of 2,030,150 CFA francs (4,425 US dollars) or two years’ imprisonment if he was unable to pay the fine. Not able to pay the fine, he had to remain in prison.
Then his health conditions deteriorated due to the life-threatening conditions at the prison. Along the way, he could only receive medical care outside, only when and if he could afford it.
Meanwhile, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN had begun demanding his release.
Amnesty International argued that the charges against him “are unfounded at best and he should be released immediately and unconditionally.”
According to Articles 152 to 156 of the Cameroonian Penal code, the offense of contempt is only applicable to senior government and legislative officials, as well as foreign dignitaries. It does not mention their spouses or members of their families, a report by africultures said in April 2011.
It added that Teyou was not sued by the first lady, nor was she a witness in the case after he was arrested, detained and during his trial.
His charge of unlawful assembly was also surprising for many, considering the Cameroonian author had notified authorities of the launch ahead of time.
About two months in prison, on February 15, 2011, Teyou went on a hunger strike to protest the conditions at the prison but his family persuaded him to back down due to his health which continued to deteriorate.
Fortunately, that same year, on May 2, Teyou was released when the London chapter of International PEN agreed to pay his fine and to also go for medical treatment.
Rejoining his family and friends, it was later reported that his health had improved. The chair of African literature at the University of Bayreuth also offered to pay the expenses for his book to be reprinted in Germany.
At the time of his arrest, Amnesty International said it believed Teyou was held as a prisoner of conscience, “detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression and association.”
In an interview in March 2011, Teyou disclosed his motives for writing his book. “We are entitled to rise against the injustice that is crippling our country. We cannot let evil go unquestioned… This book is the expression of my dissatisfaction with what is going on in Cameroon, especially the macabre system that gives Chantal Biya the leeway to treat people around her with extreme cruelty.”
Chantal’s husband, 87-year-old Biya, is one of Africa’s longest-serving presidents who won another seven-year term in 2018. After serving for 36 years, he is not ready to step down even though the country continues to fall apart.
Recent events in the country contain all the telltale signs of a regime in decline and a failing environment.
For a long time, Biya has relied on the usual dictatorial tactics to maintain his stranglehold on the country; ethnic divisions, a brutal military crackdown on dissenters, arrest and imprisonment of opposition leaders, keeping a close college of cronies, most of whom are from his region of origin and have remained blind loyalists. Those that have shown signs of wavering have been quickly thrown in prison.