Update: This story has been updated with information on Saturday’s hearing on Professor Nganang’s case, as well as more information on Cameroon’s anti-terrorism law and the efforts of American academics to secure Nganang’s release.
Stony Brook Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature Professor Patrice Nganang was detained in Cameroon on Wednesday night after he penned an article that criticized the country’s government.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported Nganang is currently being held at the General Delegation for National Security detention center in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, and was not granted access to legal counsel until Friday morning. Emmanuel Simh, Nganang’s lawyer, told CPJ the professor is accused of insulting President Paul Biya in a Facebook post, and Nganang was accused of issuing a death threat to Biya in a hearing on Saturday.
“The detention of Patrice Nganang is an outrage and Cameroonian authorities must immediately release him without charge and allow him to travel,” CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal said. “Cameroon seems intent on violating the right to freedom of expression to silence critical voices, including in the press.”
According to French-language magazine Jeune Afrique, Nganang’s disappearance was first reported on Thursday, the morning after he failed to board a Kenya Airways flight from Cameroon to Zimbabwe. Nganang’s wife, Nyasha, who was waiting for him in Zimbabwe, said the professor’s friend dropped him off at Douala International Airport, and noted he completed his pre-flight registration. Over the phone, the airport confirmed her husband had checked his luggage but never showed up to board the plane.
Nganang’s arrest came one day after the professor published an article in Jeune Afrique that criticized Biya’s response to police killings in the country’s English-speaking region. Nganang accused Biya of blaming all of Cameroon’s English-speaking minority for the murders and wondered if the government’s response would lead to forced relocations.
Cameroon passed controversial anti-terror legislation in December 2014 that makes it possible for the government to arrest anybody charged with “defending terrorism” for up to 20 years, with a maximum punishment of death. The law has already been used to imprison several journalists, including RFI correspondent Ahmed Abba, who is currently serving out a 10-year prison sentence after reporting on Boko Haram’s activities within the nation.
Robert Harvey, the former chair of the Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature department who hired Nganang at Stony Brook, said he and his colleagues are busy working to drum up support for Nganang’s release. An open letter calling for the end Nganang’s detention has received nearly 300 signatures from academics as of Sunday, Dec. 10.
“People are upset, of course, but to the extent they can they’re taking action,” Harvey said. “I’m working very closely with colleagues at Princeton University… several people there and myself are leading an initiative to get a letter to various entities, the Cameroonian embassy, the State Department, Senator Schumer’s office, Senator Booker’s office expressing our distress and hoping they will get something done.”
Harvey also praised his colleague’s passion for the causes he supports and dedication to his students.
“He’s an extremely engaged and committed professor,” Harvey said. “Nganang is someone who’s extremely enthusiastic about the power of literature to not only kindle the imagination but to affect political and social change. And he instills those kind of values in his students.”
Stony Brook President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. also released an official statement regarding Nganang’s detention.
“Stony Brook University is aware of the situation and we are working around the clock with the appropriate authorities and elected US representatives to help facilitate the safe return of Professor Nganang,” Stanley said.
Simh has told CPJ that his client is in good spirits and he is working on a legal defense to secure Nganang’s release. At Saturday’s hearing, Simh argued that since his client does not possess firearms and has a history of peaceful protests and activism, his post did not represent a legitimate threat to Biya.
Nganang’s case is set to be brought before a prosecutor on Monday, Dec. 11. The prosecutor will determine whether or not the case will proceed.
The Statesman will update this story as more information becomes available.
Update, Mon, Dec. 11, 8:37 p.m. :
Nganang’s hearing, scheduled for Monday morning, was postponed for 48 hours. The professor’s legal team was also informed the government’s charge that Nganang insulted the President has been dropped. He remains charged with issuing a death threat, and is still being detained, but U.S. embassy staff who visited him reported the professor is in good spirits.