YAOUNDE (Reuters) - Human rights campaigners in Cameroon accused the government on Wednesday of covering up the true death toll from riots last week, in which one organization said at least 100 people were killed.
Crowds of youths fought police and soldiers in several towns and cities when a strike by taxi drivers over fuel prices turned violent amid anger over President Paul Biya's plan to change the constitution to extend his 25-year rule.
Communication Minister Jean-Pierre Biyiti bi Essam told Radio France International on Tuesday that 17 people had died, and accused human rights groups of exaggerating the death toll.
But Madeleine Affite, Littoral Province coordinator for Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT), said the true death toll was higher. Littoral Province includes the commercial capital Douala and several other towns hit by riots.
"The information we have received from our field workers in the various towns affected by last week's violent incidents, as well as complaints from families, indicate that at least 100 people died in clashes with security forces, over 10 others missing and several hundred others injured," she said.
"I'm afraid this number could even be higher when a final count is made in the coming days," she told Reuters.
Fellow human rights activist Alice Nkom, who is a lawyer in Douala, agreed the official toll was too low.
"There are many more than they are saying, and they were killed by bullets," she said. "They don't want people to know."
Affite said 20 bodies had been recovered from Douala's Wouri river where security forces confronted demonstrators a week ago.
"They were trapped by security forces on both ends of the bridge who started throwing tear gas at them. In the confusion that followed many of them were forced to jump into the river in a bid to save their lives, but died," she said.
Affite said the authorities had instructed hospital morgues not to release the bodies of those killed in order to hush up the scale of the violence and the security forces' response.
"We've met aggrieved families, we've met with hospital authorities who have told us that mortuaries are filled with corpses from last week," Affite said.
Members of the Cameroon Bar Council criticized summary trials of hundreds of people detained in last week's violence.
Many are being charged with looting of private and public property, destruction of property and erecting barricades, said Francis Ndjonko, one of six lawyers who have offered to represent defendants in court for free in the capital Yaounde.
"Once they appear in court, they are hurriedly tried without any defense counsel, with trials lasting sometimes just about five minutes, and sentenced to heavy terms in prison ranging from 14 months to two years and payment of fines," he said.
Alice Nkom, a lawyer and human rights activist in Douala, said the city's courts were working through some 450 defendants, many of whom she said had been beaten in custody.
"They have been tortured ... They are naked from the waist up in court, and you can see the marks," she said.
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Additional reporting and writing by Alistair Thomson; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Richard Balmforth