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Slippery justice: the travails of a whistleblower in Cameroon

Blowing the whistle on corruption can have dangerous consequences for the whistleblowers who confront injustice and then find the system turns on them.

Transparency International Cameroon, through its Anti-Corruption and Legal Advice Centre, has been investigating allegations of bad business practices made against Plantations du Haut Penja (PHP), a company that runs a number of banana plantations in Njombé-Penja, a district in West Cameroon. PHP is owned by a French multinational.

It is alleged that PHP uses pesticides that are banned in Europe and have caused damage to both the health of its workers and the land, despite the fact that two of its plantations have Fair Trade certification.

It is also alleged that PHP has not paid tax on its operations in Njombé-Penja, thereby depriving a poor region of much-needed funds for development. A 2011 documentary produced by Franck Bieuleu, a Cameroonian filmmaker, and broadcast in France, showed the widespread poverty in Njombé-Penja. (The film was banned in Cameroon, reportedly because the filmmaker did not have the correct permits.)

The company denies all the allegations against it. As recently as 21 October, PHP published an open letter to the president of our chapter in Cameroon, signed by more than 5,000 out of PHP’s 6,000-strong workforce, emphasising that it operates at a high level, pays its workers well and gives them medical assistance.

The man who made the allegations in the first place, Paul Eric Kingue, the former mayor of Njombé-Penja was jailed in 2008 on what Transparency International Cameroon believes are trumped up charges. The evidence gathered by our Cameroonian chapter and others, including Amnesty International and Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l'homme (FIDH), shows that the judicial process that put Kingue behind bars was severely flawed.

Pressure points

The goal for Transparency International Cameroon is to help secure the release of Kingue and get to the bottom of the allegations against PHP.

In August the United Nations Human Rights Commission reviewed Kingue’s case and said the arrest and the judicial proceedings were “arbitrary” and that he should be released and compensated. Given the findings, the Working group on Arbitrary Detention forwarded the case to the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers.

On 7 November, our chapter in Cameroon sent a formal complaint to Fair Trade International, which has certified two of the PHP plantations in Njombé-Penja. The organisation has agreed to undertake a further investigation into the practices at the Mantem and PHP2 plantations.

Next steps

Transparency International with our chapter in Cameroon is renewing calls for a review of the judicial process that found Kingue guilty. The six-page letter from the UN cited that two criteria in particular made the detention of Kingue arbitrary:

  • When it is clearly impossible to invoke any legal basis justifying the deprivation of liberty (as when a person is kept in detention after the completion of his sentence or despite an amnesty law applicable to him)(Category I);
  • When the total or partial non-observance of the international norms relating to the right to a fair trial, spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the relevant international instruments accepted by the States concerned, is of such gravity as to give the deprivation of liberty an arbitrary character (Category III).

Transparency International Cameroon and many human rights organisations are calling for a retrial at the very least and for Kingue to be released from jail immediately.

The Cameroonian government should also investigate the allegations of tax evasion and show where the money, which PHP says it has paid in taxes, has gone.

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For any press inquiries please contact press@transparency.org

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