Cameroon: the french armored vehicles of the torturers
Armored vehicles manufactured in France whose construction was contracted by the United States Department of Defense were used by an elite Cameroonian security force accused of slaughtering civilians and torturing detainees, according to an open source investigation by Disclose and its investigative partners.
According to department records, a $24,974,528 contract between the U.S. Army and Mack Defense LLC, based in Pennsylvania, was formally announced in September 2015. The announcement describes Mack Defense’s military sales contract for 62 armored personnel carriers destined for Cameroon, Ethiopia, Somalia, Tunisia, Uganda. "Work will be performed in France," the announcement specifies.
The vehicles were built by the French company ACMAT, a subsidiary of the French company Arquus, which, like Mack Defense, is part of the Volvo Group.
Twenty-three bastion armored personnel carriers supplied by France and funded by the U.S. were delivered to Cameroon in 2015 and 2016, according to trade registers made available by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Many of them are used by the Cameroon’s elite security force, the Rapid Intervention Battalion — known by its French-language acronym, BIR — which is part of the Cameroonian military’s fight against terrorist group Boko Haram.
A photo accompanying 2017 article by a pro-government journalist gives further evidence of the association between the BIR and French-made bastions. The photo, which appears to have been taken at the BIR base in the northern Cameroonian village of Salak, shows bastions alongside other armored vehicles bearing the letters "B.I.R."
Bastions also appear to have been used elsewhere in the country. One video appears to show the armored vehicles in use near Menji, a village in Cameroon’s southwest.
The French government permitted the manufacture and export of these vehicles in spite of warnings of brutalities committed by Cameroon’s security forces from the U.S. State Department and rights groups going back years.
Officials in the U.S., too, turned a blind eye, continuing to send U.S. troops to the Salak base, and to praise the BIR, after the U.S. State Department warned of human rights violations by Cameroonian security forces in 2010. Early this year, the U.S. suspended $17 million in military aid for Cameroon, including funds for nine armored vehicles, over human rights abuses. France, however, said its military relationship with Cameroon would continue.
This is in spite of substantial documentation of human rights abuses on the part of Cameroon’s security forces in the last years. In a report dated September 2015, Amnesty International described "crimes under international law and human rights violations committed by Cameroonian security forces" in the course of their fight against Boko Haram.
According to a 2016 Amnesty report, the BIR, which has ties to the Israeli army, killed at least seven unarmed civilians and arrested at least 15 men in 2014 in the village of Bornori. The arrested men were brought to the Salak base, where they spent 20 days in detention. Many were tortured there; one person died.
In February 2016, a pro-bono lawyer told Amnesty, "Lots of [my clients] are tortured, mainly by the BIR in Salak. They endure all kinds of torture, including severe beatings with sticks. I have seen the marks on the body of one man who sought legal assistance. He undressed and I saw the wounds. He had marks on his back from being badly whipped. He said the BIR did it."
A 2017 report by Amnesty documents 101 cases of torture, and people being held without means of communicating with the outside, between 2013 and 2017. "Most of which were carried out in a series of facilities run by Cameroon’s elite Rapid Intervention Brigade (BIR) and the General Directorate of External Research (DGRE)," reads the report.
For more than a decade, France has been legally bound by the European Union’s Common Position 2008/944/CFSP, which requires countries to "deny an export licence if there is a clear risk that the military technology or equipment to be exported might be used for internal repression."
"Numerous African and Middle Eastern countries trust the Bastion for their peacekeeping, reconnaissance forces and combat missions. These vehicles are also used by Special Forces units," reads a description of the bastion vehicles on the Arquus website.
In response to requests for comment from Disclose and its investigative partners, the prime Minister office provided a statement that, translated from French, reads in part, "France exercises a strict, transparent and responsible control on exports of war materials. Strict control, which is based on a thorough interdepartmental examination, the objective of which is to evaluate all the aspects of the proposed operation. … Responsible control, because all transfers are framed by imperatives related to national security but also to the respect of France's international commitments, some of which impose specific obligations on France. … Transparent control: all data on French exports are accessible online and updated annually as part of the report to Parliament and France's report on the Arms Trade Treaty.”
Arquus did not asnwer our questions. The Conseil des Industries de Défense Françaises, an association of defense industry groups in France, replied with the following statement, translated from French : "The action of industrialists falls within the strict framework of French regulations of the sale of military equipment for export. No sale of systems is carried out without prior authorization issued by an interministerial commission placed with the Prime Minister and presided on by the Secretary General of Defense and National Security. The industrialists are willing to apply the law in all its rigor and scope and are in compliance with international principles relative to the rights of man and of businesses.