Friday, 27 July 2012

Cameroon: Thousands defy tight security to cheer Marafa in first three court appearances

Cameroon's former interior minister Marafa Hamidou Yaya has made three appearances in court on 16, 24 and 26 July, alongside Yves Michel Fotso, the former general manager of the defunct state-run carrier Cameroon Airlines (Camair). They pleaded not guilty to charges that they were involved in a 2004 financial scam of CFA24 billion destined for the purchase of a presidential jet. But their arrival at the Mfoundi High Court in Yaounde for the last two hearings witnessed a heated atmosphere, with over 50 heavily-armed paramilitary gendarmes, police and anti-terrorist troops clad in bullet proof jackets, who had been deployed to contain nearly 5,000 people crowding the court premises to witness the hearings.

Marafa and Fotso were whisked into the courtroom through the back door to avoid the anxious crowd that had thronged the court entrance waiting to receive the accused with cheers. “Free Marafa!” “Free our president!” repeatedly shouted some of them.

The hearings are attracting much attention because Marafa, who has been tipped to face President Paul Biya in the next elections in 2018, had secretly advised the latter not to stand in the October polls. After his arrest and detention in jail, in one of four open letters to Biya, Marafa asked the head of state to quit power. He also began disclosing top government secrets which have started having damaging consequences on the government.

Hearings on the second day were short-lived, despite the several hours of delay, ostensibly to manage the huge and growing support for Marafa. Chief magistrate Gilbert Schlick was forced to adjourn the case to 26 July as the defending lawyers argued that they could not proceed on grounds that the complaint officially outlining the accusations against Marafa and Fotso only reached them four days before the scheduled hearing, a period too short for them to study the dossiers.

“It is impossible to study and master a thick file of 25kg,” argued defending barrister Jean de Dieu Momo, one of Marafa's lawyers. “Moreover, some pages of the documents are missing, so how can we open the case?” Momo questioned, saying that this is just a means to “mix things up and rapidly liquidate this case”. Fotso's lawyer Alice Nkom said their wish was to see equitable justice in which “the rights of the defendants are not sacrificed”. It is for these reasons that the defence lawyers asked for a week's adjournment in order to carefully study the file. But one of the judges accused the defence team of ineptitude to organise themselves in the face of a “very serious matter”.

Inside the courtroom were the director of finances of the state-run National Hydrocarbons Corporation (SNH) Meding Meko'o, as well as the country's former minister of finance Michel Meva'a M'Eboutou. Both men were among 14 witnesses to testify in the case, as funds to buy the plane were provided by the SNH through the approval of the then minister of finance.

But the postponement seems to have angered the presiding judge Gilbert Schlick, who has just three months to give his verdict on the case. Schlick told the defending lawyers that “even 24 hours were enough for you to understand the file to enable the work to go on, if you really wanted to work”. The next session scheduled for 26 July was yet to start at time of writing, but more crowds of about 7,000 people had already trooped into the court grounds, blocking traffic.

For more news and expert analysis about Cameroon, please see Cameroon Politics & Security.

© 2012 Menas Associates

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