The Cameroonian army confirmed on Friday that English-speaking journalist Samuel Wazizi died in detention last year, accusing him of associating with terrorists, but denying accusations that he had been tortured.
The army said Wazizi died "as a result of severe sepsis" on August 17, 2019 – 15 days after his arrest, according to the RSF news agency.
The armed forces 'statement came after the Cameroon journalists' union reported that Wazizi died and said the army had tortured him.
The 35-year-old had worked for the local CMTV channel in one of two regions where English-speaking separatists launched an armed campaign for the independence of French-speaking Cameroon.
He was arrested in the city of Buea on August 2 and "accused of speaking critically in the air about the authorities and their treatment of the crisis," according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
The army said that despite "claiming to be a television station host", Wazizi was "in fact a logistician for several terrorist groups", a reference to English-speaking separatists.
– "Fabric of lies" –
Denis Nwebo, president of the National Union of Cameroon Journalists (SNJC), said in a tweet that the statement was "a fabric of lies and a final provocation".
France's ambassador to Cameroon Paul Guilhou told CRTV that President Paul Biya would "conduct an investigation" into the death after the two met on Friday.
The Army also said the journalist's family had been notified at the time – an allegation his lawyers refuted – and did not show up to take his body.
"We are in close contact with his family, who say they were not contacted and that we were already representing him at the time of his death – we were the people to know," lawyer Edward Ewule told AFP.
Ewule said he first heard confirmation of his client's death when the army statement was read on national radio.
"I am devastated, 10 months ago I was the last civilian to see him alive," he said.
Reports of Wazizi's death sparked outrage among journalists and human rights groups this week, many using the hashtag #JusticeForWazizi on social media.
Jude Viban, president of the Association of English Language Journalists in Cameroon, said that "only an independent commission of inquiry would be able to shed light on this case".
"Why didn't the government inform the judicial system of our colleague's death?"
RSF said on Twitter that it was "outraged" by the military's statement.
"The family was never informed of his death and the journalist was in perfect health at the time of his arrest," he said.
The army called the reports of Wazizi's death "a new episode of the demonization of our defense and security forces."
– separatist revolt –
The southwest and northwest regions of the West African country have been dominated by violence since the start of the separatist revolt in October 2017.
The conflict, rooted in long-standing perceptions of discrimination among Cameroon's English-speaking minority, has already killed more than 3,000 lives and forced nearly 700,000 people to leave their homes.
Human rights groups say atrocities and abuses were committed by separatists and security forces.
RSF described Wazizi's death as the country's worst attack on journalists in a decade.
It ranked Cameroon 134th out of 180 countries and territories on its World Press Freedom Index 2020, three places below the previous year.