Sentenced to 10 Years for Texting a Joke

In the wake of attacks and kidnappings by Boko Haram, Cameroon instituted harsh anti-terror laws to try to root out suspected fighters for the notorious armed group. Unfortunately, innocent people have been swept up in these efforts. Cameroon has arrested over 1,000 people, mostly for no apparent reason, in an overzealous attempt to stop Boko Haram. Prisoners have been beaten and tortured. Some die in detention or are sentenced to death.

Most of those arrested have very little evidence against them, or have found themselves in badly misunderstood circumstances. That is the case in the following story of a student named Fomusoh Ivo Feh, who is serving a 10-year sentence all because of a sarcastic text message. Ivo’s brother, Fomusoh Eric, tells his story:

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Fomusoh Ivo

Two years ago, my brother Fomusoh Ivo Feh was a young man just about to start university. He knew how hard it was to find a job in our country Cameroon without a degree. But a tough job market wasn’t the only struggle facing our country. The armed group Boko Haram was also carrying out attacks in Cameroon, causing the government to enact a fierce crackdown on alleged sympathizers.

But Ivo, as we call him, was just trying to go about his every day life. And sometimes, to make sense of a senseless situation, he liked to joke with his friends. Not because he did not take the economic situation or the threat of Boko Haram seriously, but as a way to cope with the daily stress.

His friend texted him something that sounded like a job advertisement, but was clearly a joke: “Boko Haram recruits young people from 14 years old and above. Conditions for recruitment: 4 subjects at GCE, including religion.” To students like Ivo and his friends, the idea that not even Boko Haram would take you on without proper academic qualifications would be quite funny.

So Ivo did something we all do — he shared the joke with his friend. Who shared it with his friend. Who had his phone taken by a teacher. Who called the police. All three students were arrested.

All of a sudden, my brother’s hopes of earning his degree and getting a good job came crashing down on him. As a result of Cameroon’s strict laws, Ivo’s sarcastic text was interpreted as a recruitment message. Recently, he and his friends were sentenced to 10 years in prison for non-denunciation of terrorist acts.”

There is no doubt that Boko Haram terrifies us. Over 170,000 people in Cameroon have fled their homes, and 65,000 people from Nigeria have sought refuge here as well. But locking up innocent people like my brother and keeping them in dangerous conditions is wrong. It is bad enough that we fear Boko Haram. We should not have to fear those who swear to protect us as well.

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Fomusoh Eric holding a picture of his brother Ivo, now in prison

I am so grateful for the international attention that Ivo’s case has received so far. The case of Ivo and his friends has been highlighted as part of Amnesty International’s annual Write for Rights campaign, urging people around the world to take action on behalf of human rights. Thousands of people around the world are calling on the government of Cameroon to release my brother from jail and have him come home.

Forcing innocent people to forfeit their lives and their futures in the name of national security is no way to keep a country safe. Boko Haram must be stopped, but not at the price of personal freedom. Until those unjustly imprisoned are freed, peace here in Cameroon will be impossible.

Amnesty International Poland’s 360 video dramatizing Ivo’s story

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