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In January 2017, Musa Usaman Ndamba, a Cameroonian human rights defender will appear for the thirty-second time before the Court of First Instance in Bamenda, Cameroon, ready to defend himself against allegations of criminal defamation filed by wealthy businessman and politician Baba Ahmadou Danpullo.

But, as with the other thirty-one appearances before the court, the matter in this case, Case No. CFIBA/53c/PI/2014, is likely to be postponed. These postponements have been because the complainant, Baba Danpullo, has repeatedly failed to attend court or the prosecution is not ready to proceed. Musa on the other hand, with his lawyers, attends every hearing, hoping to present his case against the false allegations, and bring the matter to an end. For over two years, Musa has been forced to expend time defending himself in this case, instead of focusing on his human rights work. He has suffered damage to his reputation, the financial burden of legal fees, and the anxiety of possible criminal sanctions if he is convicted, which has also affected his family.

In this case, Baba Danpullo alleges that Musa authored an affidavit that implicated Baba Danpullo in several human rights violations. Musa denies authoring the affidavit that was signed under the name Musa Adamu, a name that Musa vehemently denies ever using. Without going into the merits of the case, Musa has been deprived of the opportunity to prove his case as the matter has been repeatedly postponed. Musa strongly believes that the case against him is one of many cases Baba Danpullo filed in retaliation for Musa’s human rights work. Musa is the National Vice President of the Mbororo Social and Cultural Development Association (MBOSCUDA), and for over thirty years, he has been advocating for the rights of the indigenous Mbororo-Fulani people of North-West Cameroon. As a result of his work, Musa has come into direct conflict with Baba Danpullo, one of the richest men in Cameroon, whose ranch has increasingly encroached on the communal lands used by the Mbororo-Fulani people to sustain their pastoral way of life, which relies on their ability to use the land.

A report released by the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights in August 2016, on the case of Musa, highlighted how the current case against him strongly pointed to a case of judicial harassment. In addition to the current case, the report documented several other cases stretching back several years that Baba Danpullo has filed against Musa, and that have all been dismissed by the courts as a result of the complainant’s lack of prosecution. In one of the cases the court is quoted as saying “[the] claimant (Baba Danpullo) is the victim of the offense but has never graced the court with his presence despite the numerous adjournments at his instance.” The report also highlighted that the repeated delays of the case were a violation of the right to a fair trial guaranteed under Cameroon’s Constitution and recognized due process rights under international law. In emphasizing the importance of the right to a speedy trial, the African Commission has stated that the right to be tried within a reasonable time is one of the cardinal principles of the right to a fair trial and that the undue prolongation of a case is contrary to the spirit of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. Although the previous cases against Musa were eventually dismissed, Musa lost time and resources defending himself as he is doing now.

In its 2015 human rights report, the United States State Department highlighted how the judiciary in Cameroon was “generally corrupt and subject to political influence.” The report also highlighted how “individuals reportedly accused innocent persons of crimes as retribution or to solve personal disputes.” Paying particular attention to how Baba Danpullo has filed criminal cases against Musa and failed to pursue them in the past, it is not difficult to see why there is overwhelming concern that Baba Danpullo has been using the judicial system to harass Musa and that this case is part of a broader pattern. Several other organizations have raised concerns over the case against Musa and how it is seemingly in retaliation for his human rights work. Even the United Nations High Commissioner for the Human Rights’ 2014 Annual report raised concern regarding Musa’s case, stating that human rights defenders should not be punished for approaching the United Nations. This was in response to the fact that the one of the many cases against Musa by Baba Danpullo, which was filed in May 2014, was brought shortly after Musa had contributed to the submission of a shadow report to the United Nations on human rights violations in which Baba Danpullo had been implicated. The 2014 case, like the cases before it, was also dismissed for lack of prosecution. Despite the numerous reports, articles, and letters to the Cameroonian government highlighting the judicial harassment by Baba Danpullo against Musa, the Cameroon government has remained resolutely silent, failing to investigate and bring to an end the litany of frivolous charges filed against Musa. At the very least, the government of Cameroon has failed to ensure that Musa is afforded the right to a speedy trial as guaranteed under Cameroon’s Constitution and international due process rights.

Human rights defenders help promote and protect the rights respected in the various regional and international human rights treaties. They play a pivotal role in upholding economic, social, cultural and political rights. It is not uncommon for human rights defenders to be the victims of judicial harassment from non-State actors, including corporations and powerful land owners. The former Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders has noted that criminal prosecutions and judicial repression are all too often used to silence human rights defenders and to pressure them into discontinuing their activities. Not only does the court case prevent the defender from actively pursuing his human rights work, but it also serves to deter other human rights defenders. States have a duty to ensure that defenders are not subjected to judicial harassment through unwarranted legal proceedings and any other misuse of administrative or judicial authority for acts related to their work. Furthermore, laws must not be used to intimidate, harass, persecute, or retaliate against human rights defenders. By allowing the use of the judicial system as a vehicle for harassment against Musa, Cameroon has failed in its obligation to respect and effectively protect human rights defenders as they carry out their legitimate human rights work.