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Human rights outcry as African journalist who fled to Glasgow faces deportation

‘For me,” says Charles Atangana over the phone from the Immigration Detention Centre at Colnbrook near Heathrow, where he is being held, “going back to Cameroon is a death sentence.”

Six years ago he fled the west African country, seeking asylum in Glasgow. Back in Cameroon, he’d been one of the country’s best investigative journalists and had been detained without trial and tortured for publishing articles critical of the government.

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As a business journalist he specialised in stories probing financial corruption.

Atangana’s application for asylum has been turned down, and tomorrow his options run out. If a court hearing turns down his appeal, he’ll be put on a plane and deported from the UK as quickly as possible.

However, the UK’s National Union of Journalists says it will stage a last-ditch fight to keep Atangana in Britain by seeking an injunction against any deportation order.

Atangana says with grim certainty that he will be murdered by his government if he is forced to return to Cameroon. During the six years he spent in Glasgow, the 42-year-old received several death threats from people he believes were acting for Cameroonian authorities.

Peter Murray, president of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), said to deport Atangana would leave the UK Government with “blood on its hands”.

Speaking of the constraints on free speech and freedom of the press in his home country, Atangana said: “Torture is routine for journalists who are arrested. I went through that routine -- thank God I am alive.

“They start kicking you everywhere. They want you to tell them who your source is, where you got information but as a journalist you have to protect your information.

“These guys are just police officials receiving instruction from someone somewhere in government who got them to arrest you. They will do anything that can destroy you mentally.”

Atangana’s family also had to leave Cameroon and go into hiding because authorities tried to use them to find him. His wife was also tortured.

“In Cameroon if you can’t get hold of the husband who is the journalist you go for his wife or his girlfriend or his parents,” said Atangana.

The NUJ has organised a lobby outside the UK Border Agency building in Glasgow tomorrow to protest the planned deportation of Atangana.

During his time in Glasgow Atangana volunteered as an adviser with the Citizens Advice Bureau and worked with the Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees, as well as volunteering as a basketball coach for youngsters.

He also continued to publish articles for a Cameroonian magazine and remains openly critical of the government’s stranglehold on press freedom.

Atangana said journalists in Cameroon continue to face arrest and torture at the hands of the government as the country’s leaders seek to hold on to power.

Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, has been in office since 1982 and will stand in the general election next year.

A report by the Federation of African Journalists in May described Cameroon as “one of the worst jailers of journalists in Africa” and noted 13 prominent journalists who were currently being detained or had been attacked or threatened.

The report also called for an investigation into the death of Bibi Ngota, a journalist who died in custody in April.

Atangana said: “Many before me have been detained and then they disappear. Even today nobody knows what happened to them. I know three or four journalists in detention at the moment in Cameroon.”

Atangana said: “If I am a journalist fighting corruption revealing what the Cameroonian government is doing wrong, how can the UK Government want me to go back when they know I’m going to be killed?

“Being a journalist, telling the truth and seeking asylum -- is that criminal thing?”

NUJ President Peter Murray added: “While he has been living in Glasgow, Charles has refused to be silenced or intimidated by continuing threats and harassment against his family, so we have grave fears for his safety if he is forcibly returned to Cameroon.”

No representative of the Home Office was available for comment.

  ‘Torture: a routine form of abuse against press freedom’

 

The Federation of African Journalists, the regional organisation of the International Federation of Journalists, undertook a fact-finding mission to Cameroon in May.

Their report concluded: “Arbitrary arrests and criminal prosecution of journalists, as well as torture, have become routine forms of abuse against press freedom, inflicting huge damage to any confidence in the rule of law and democracy.”

The federation called for an immediate investigation into the death of Bibi Ngota, editor of a bimonthly newspaper, Cameroon Express, who died in custody.

The report said he died on April 22 because of “a lack of medical attention” as he suffered from high blood pressure and hypertension.

An Amnesty International report in 2009 found: “As part of a strategy to stifle opposition, the authorities perpetrated or condoned violations including arbitrary arrests, unlawful detentions and restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

“Human rights defenders and journalists were harassed and threatened. Men and women were detained because of their sexual orientation.”

It added: “The security forces routinely used excessive and unnecessary lethal force and no investigations were carried out into unlawful killings by members.”

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