Himmler Would Have Been Proud: Allegations that ICE officers used torture to force Cameroonian asylum seekers to sign their own deportation orders
On Thursday October 22, The Guardian reported that US immigration officers allegedly tortured Cameroonian asylum seekers to force them to sign their own deportation orders, in what lawyers and activists describe as a brutal last ditch effort to get them out of the country before the presidential election. Lawyers and human rights advocates said there had been a significant acceleration of deportations in recent weeks, a trend they see as linked to the looming elections and possibility ICE could soon be under new management.
Why are Cameroonians seeking asylum in the United States? The answer requires a little history: When the European colonial scramble for Africa began in the 1880s, Germany managed to grab a large portion of West Central Africa, establishing the colony of Kamerun. After World War I the territory was confiscated by the French and British who carved it up between them with the French taking the larger part. Upon the granting of independence in 1961, the UN held a referendum giving English-speaking Cameroonians the choice to either join Nigeria or predominantly French-speaking Cameroon. With no option to become an independent state, they chose their francophone neighbors and formed a federal republic with them. But the anglophones soon found it was not a marriage of equals.
In 2017, after French-speaking staff were appointed to anglophone courts, lawyers in Bamenda, the capital of one of the anglophone regions, took to the streets in protest. They were soon joined by teachers, who said francophones with little English were being hired in their public schools. The protests started peacefully but turned violent when the state met them with force. According to a July 2018 Human Rights Watch report, the government negotiated with the lawyers and teachers’ unions, created a National Commission for Bilingualism and Multiculturalism and the recruitment of bilingual magistrates and teachers but this did little to deescalate the crisis. The government’s repression and arrest of prominent anglophone negotiators on January 17, 2017, emboldened more extremist leaders who began to demand, increasingly violently, independence for Cameroon’s anglophone North-West and South-West regions — a territory they call “Ambazonia.”
The conflict began to escalate in 2018. In July 2018 The Guardian reported, that Cameroon’s military was accused of burning villages and killing unarmed civilians in the anglophone regions. Twenty villages were set ablaze and at least four women burned alive, according to Human Rights Watch. The report also documented the burning of schools by armed anglophone separatists, in an apparent attempt to enforce a school boycott. Tens of thousands of Cameroonian children were not able to attend school as a result. The separatists’ numbers increased as the violent repression continued, particularly in the wake of security forces killing of dozens of protesters and wounding more than hundred others in October 2017. With hundreds in jail, and more than 180,000 displaced, many anglophones felt they had no choice but to fight or seek asylum outside of Cameroon.
A complaint filed on October 7, 2020 by the advocacy group, Freedom for Immigrants (FFI) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) cites eight cases of forced signatures or fingerprints on stipulated orders of removal. The eight individuals interviewed by FFI/SPLC did so anonymously with only initials to identify them (FFI/SPLC says in the complaint this was done for their protection) but that they were willing to report their allegations publicly to oversight bodies, congressional representative and the media. As of October 7th, staff with Southern Poverty Law Center were informed that all eight men who had legal calls scheduled for that day had been released from the facility, raising grave concerns they were en route to deportation.
“B.J.,” interviewed on 9/30/20 said he was pepper sprayed in the eyes and strangled almost to the point of death. He further said he was hospitalized after the incident but not treated well: “I tried to wash my eyes with toilet water. They did not even allow me to use a sink to wash out my eyes. I can’t see well right now.”
“D.F.,” interviewed on 10/02/2020 said when he refused to sign a deportation order an ICE agent promised D.F. he would torture him. The agent allegedly pressed his neck into the floor to the point where he couldn’t breathe and lost blood circulation. D.F. continued [note: “Zulu” is a punitive wing of the Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Mississippi]:
Then they took me inside with my hands at my back where there were no cameras. After they tortured me then about four CoreCivic Officers and two ICE officers took me to Zulu . They continued to torture me in Zulu . They put me on my knees where they were torturing me and they said they were going to kill me. They took my arm and twisted it. They were putting their feet on my neck. While in Zulu, they did get my fingerprint on my deportation document and took my picture. At the end of the torture, I was out of breath and very tired — I couldn’t stand up.
“C.A.,” interviewed on 10/1/2020 he was grabbed, forced to the ground, and pepper sprayed the eyes. He alleged he was then handcuffed and that a security officer at Adams broke his finger. C.A. continued:
I was crying, “I can’t breathe” because they were forcefully on top of me pressing their body weight on top of me. My eyes were so hot. They dragged me outside by both hands. I was dragged across the ground. I was crying. My eyes were burning…They told me to keep moving. They were dragging me in all directions. I saw them dragging me and two others into Zulu. We three were forced into the shower with our clothes on. We had bruises on our bodies. I was then forced into a chair in a room. It was a prison chair that was attached to the wall. Mr. Green and another officer forced my neck on the table. I was crying, “I need to talk to my attorney,” and I said, “They are going to kill me”. There was a lady known as Ms. Blanton that was taking video. The officers told me to open my eyes. I couldn’t. My legs and hands were handcuffed. They forcefully opened my palm. Some of my fingers were broken. They forced my fingerprint onto the paper.
An Ice spokeswoman, Sarah Loicano, is quoted in the October 22 Guardian article as confirming that a formal complaint over use of force against the Cameroonian detainees had been submitted to the DHS inspector general. Loicano said further:
“[I]n general, sensationalist unsubstantiated allegations, particularly those made anonymously and without any fact-checkable specifics, is irresponsible, and should be treated with the greatest of skepticism.”
“Ice is firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody. Ice provides safe, humane, and appropriate conditions of confinement for individuals detained in its custody.”
Fair enough but the FFI/SPLC complaint makes several specific recommendations that would help get to the truth about these allegations and insure that people are accountable if laws have been violated. But don’t hold your breath waiting for action under either a lame-duck or reelected Trump administration.