A military court in Cameroon has sentenced Anglophone separatist leader Julius Sisiku Ayuk Tabe (pictured above) and nine of his followers to life in prison.
The group was convicted on a number of charges, including "terrorism and secession" and "hostility against the state," according to a press release. They were also asked to pay a joint fine of 250 billion CFA francs ($422 million, €381 million) to the state.
Ayuk Tabe is the first self-proclaimed president of the breakaway Anglophone state, "Ambazonia," which covers Cameroon's predominately English-speaking Northwest and Southwest Regions.
The so-called state of Ambazonia was declared by separatists in October 2017, prompting a swift military crackdown from the government. Ongoing violence from both sides has since left 1,850 dead, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG), and has forced at least 500,000 to flee their homes.
Read more: Cameroon's 'senseless spiral of violence'
Trial quickly branded unfair
Lawyers defending Ayuk Tabe and his supporters were quick to accuse the judge of bias.
"We went to court at 9 a.m. yesterday and left at 6:30 this morning," barrister Ayukotang Ndep Nkongho Tifuh told DW. "The attitude of the judge does not only confirm his bias and personal interest in sentencing the accused persons, but equally reveals the presumed outcome of the proceedings."
Many Cameroonians expressed their frustration over the outcome of the trial.
"It's a very big mistake," broadcaster Elvis Macathy told DW. "It just tells the international [community] that the government is not ready for peace…This sentence is politically motivated."
"We have to speed up the process of dialogue and this can only happen if President [Paul] Biya's regime is able to grant amnesty to all those detained," said human rights campaigner Mbaku Jude.
Agbor Balla Nkongho, a lawyer and chairman of the Center of Human Rights and Democracy in Central Africa (CHRDA), is still optimistic that the government may change its approach following the backlash towards the ruling.
"I am hoping it will lead to an appeal within the next ten days as the law provides," he told DW. "It might also be an opportunity for [President Paul Biya] to grant clemency because [in Cameroon] everything is done to make the president look good."
Ayuk Tabe was arrested alongside 46 other separatists in January 2018 in Nigeria's capital Abuja. Their swift extradition to Cameroon was ruled illegal by a Nigerian court in March this year.
Ayuk Tabe is viewed as one of the more moderate voices in the separatist movement and his arrest prompted more hardline leaders to emerge who are less likely to promote dialogue over violence.
In May, Ayuk Tabe said he was willing to take part in peace talks with the government on the condition that they take place abroad and that all those who had been detained since the beginning of the crisis were released.
'We need to continue the dialogue'
The verdict is also likely to have a negative impact on peace negotiations between the separatists and the government which are currently being mediated by Switzerland.
"We are now back to a stalemate so we don't know whether we are moving forward or we are going backward or we are in the same position," said Agbor Balla.
The Geneva-based Center for Humanitarian Dialogue is also playing a role in the talks in addition to providing humanitarian assistance.
"We are doing it because we have a certain expertise," Switzerland's ambassador to Cameroon, Pietro Lazzeri, told Cameroonian state media in July. "We are referees, we are not the players. We need the willingness of the parties in order to build the dialogue."
Agbor Balla believes the peace talks should continue in light of the latest setback, with a focus on those who have already been arrested and tried in court.
"We need to see how we can move from here, we need to continue the dialogue of the peace process and see how those who have been illegally and unjustly sentenced should be released," he said. "Because [those arrested] are supposed to be part of the peace process. So if you keep them in jail, it doesn't help the situation…Most people are tired of fighting and they really saw [the peace talks] as a way out of the crisis."
Fears latent tensions have been stoked
Agbor Balla is also concerned about the immediate impact of the ruling and believes it is likely to have a negative impact on the ground where steps towards peace are slowly being made.
"On the ground, it will radicalize a lot of people," he said. "There has been an ongoing back-to-school campaign by most moderate activists and organizations that has been gaining momentum. This verdict will take us back."
Many schools in the Anglophone region have been closed due to ongoing attacks and kidnappings linked to the violence between separatists and government forces. In recent months, moderates made up of traditional rulers, the clergy and members of Cameroon's national assembly have been urging young people to return to school. Some have not attended in over two years.
"The schools are supposed to start in about two weeks…It will increase the threat to students, teachers and moderate voices," said Agbor Balla. ". I will not be surprised if in the next few days the separatist leaders will call for another lockdown — they have planned one for September — and there will be sporadic attacks."
A persistent crisis
The current Anglophone crisis erupted in September 2017 after separatists declared the independence of 'Ambazonia' and the Ambazonia Defense Forces (ADF) began fighting against the Cameroonian government. The government subsequently rejected the separatists' demands for autonomy and sent thousands of troops to the region, resulting in a prolonged conflict with accusations of war crimes on both sides.
English speakers in Cameroon account for approximately a fifth of the population of 24 million. Since being incorporated into the French speaking state of Cameroon in 1961, Anglophones have accused the government of treating them like secondhand citizens, particularly in areas such as education, law and economics.
The conflict has severely damaged the economy across the country, with more than one in six Cameroonians now in need of humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations, an increase of 30% from 2018.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) last month accused authorities of committing "brazen crimes" against citizens in the Anglophone region. On Tuesday they again accused security forces of torturing over 100 detainees and holding them incommunicado at a detention facility in Yaounde between July 23 and August 4.
The authorities have acknowledged a small number of alleged abuses and frequently arrest journalists on the accusation of spreading false information.