Cameroon: All MSF staff acquitted in military tribunal

Cholera vaccination campaign in Enyenge, Southwest Cameroon

Cameroon 2022 © Faith Toran/MSF

NEW YORK/YAOUNDÉ, JANUARY 10, 2023—The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is relieved by the acquittal of five staff members who unjustly faced trial in Cameroon after being accused of complicity with secessionists. It is unacceptable that they were accused in the first place simply for doing their jobs and that four of the five were incarcerated for months, said MSF.

On December 26, 2021, an MSF nurse and ambulance driver were arrested in Nguti in the Southwest region of Cameroon while transporting a patient with a gunshot wound to the hospital. After being detained in prison for five months on the charge of complicity with secessionists, both aid workers were provisionally released in May 2022. Two other MSF staff members, a community health worker and assistant field coordinator, were detained in January 2022 under the same charge, while a project coordinator was accused in absentia.

On November 1, 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 December 29, 2022, 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 the project coordinator who had been tried in absentia.

“We are satisfied with the judgement that exonerates our five staff members—and, by extension, MSF as an organization—of any wrongdoing,” said Sylvain Groulx, MSF coordinator in central Africa. “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. Accusations like this against medical personnel for simply doing their jobs—treating patients in front of them—is simply against all medical and humanitarian ethics and laws.”

In May 2022, following the detention of MSF’s four staff members, MSF teams made the difficult decision to suspend activities in the Southwest region of Cameroon. MSF would like to restart lifesaving services as people in the region desperately need medical assistance. However, basic preconditions must be met to ensure medical activities can be conducted in a safe and secure environment so patients and staff are protected. Specifically, MSF staff must be able to provide medical care to every patient in need in line with medical ethics and following the humanitarian principles of independence, impartiality, and neutrality—even if a patient is deemed by authorities to be an armed actor or involved in the ongoing conflict in the region.

“We remain ready to continue discussions with the Cameroonian authorities to analyze the feasibility of restarting medical and humanitarian activities in the Southwest region under such preconditions,” Groulx said. “Despite our attempts to open a channel of dialogue with the government to ensure our teams can continue vital activities in the Southwest region, the government has been unresponsive. This has made it difficult to reach an agreement that ensures working conditions guarantee the safety of our teams and patients and prevents us from resuming critical lifesaving medical services that are desperately needed.”

In December 2020, authorities suspended MSF medical activities in the Northwest region following a series of allegations accusing MSF of supporting local armed groups, which MSF has consistently denied both publicly and in meetings with authorities. This suspension was never lifted, but MSF remains open to dialogue and restarting its medical support for the population there.

MSF has worked in Cameroon since 1984 and in the Southwest region since 2018. Since 2019, medical teams in the Southwest region have provided more than 400,000 medical consultations in its facilities and more than 68,000 consultations in health facilities that it supports. In 2021, MSF-supported facilities also assisted 2,284 births. MSF’s ambulance teams—the only emergency referral system in the Southwest until activities were suspended—transported more than 8,000 patients for urgent medical care in 2021.