The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Volokh Conspiracy

Ambazonia, Remedies, and the First Amendment

Across the Atlantic from Amazonia lies ... Ambazonia.


I had never heard of Ambazonia before Friday, but I now see that it is a breakaway part of Cameroon, in an area also known as the South Cameroons, though it's actually northwest of much of Cameroon. Here's the opinion that enlightened me on the subject, decided Feb. 6, but just added to Westlaw; it's by Judge Percy Anderson (C.D. Cal.), Cameroon Ass'n of Victims of Ambazonia Terrorism Inc. v. Ambazonia Foundation Inc.:

According to the Complaint, defendants Ambazonia Foundation Inc. ("AFI"), Ambazonia Interim Government ("AIG"), Ambazonia Governing Council ("AGC"), Ambazonia Defense Forces ("ADF"), Tapang Ivo Tanku ("Tanku"), and Christopher Anu Fobeneh ("Fobeneh") (collectively "Defendants"), are associated with and control an armed militia group seeking to overthrow the government in the Northwest and Southwest ("NOSO") region of Cameroon. [Some of the defendants allegedly live in the U.S. or are organized here. -EV] The Complaint alleges that Defendants announced on January 7, 2020, that there will be a "total lockdown of NOSO during the periods of February 6, 2020 through February 12, 2020" and instructed fighters associated with the militia "that anyone who steps out of their homes during that lockdown, or operates any business, will be abducted, or killed." These allegations are similar to allegations contained in the prior actions filed by Plaintiff's counsel, in which the plaintiffs in those prior action alleged that the militia's leaders announced lockdowns for other periods of time. CAVAT asserts that the lockdown threats, as well as abductions and killings in Cameroon, harm CAVAT's efforts to provide humanitarian services in the region.

Plaintiff's Complaint alleges claims against Defendants for: (1) conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim, or injure persons or damage property in a foreign county in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 956; (2) providing material support to terrorists in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2339A; (3) expedition against a friendly country in violation of the Neutrality Act, 18 U.S.C. § 960; and (4) financing of terrorism in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2339C. The Ex Parte TRO seeks to temporarily restrain Defendants from:

"1. Engaging in conduct or actions, or conspire to engage in such conducts or actions, including actions such as abductions, arson, arrests, killings, kidnappings, human rights violations, war crimes, assault, battery, harass, intimidate, molest, attack, strike, stalk, threaten, hit, abuse, or disturb the peace of plaintiff, its members, its victims, or those similarly situated.

"2. Providing any assistance like money, logistics, expert advise or assistance, personnel, weapons, bullets, to the armed non-state groups in Cameroon.

"3. Providing or preparing for, or furnishing the money for, any military expedition or enterprise to be carried out against the Republic of Cameroon.

"4. Collecting funds, directly or indirectly, with the intention that such funds be used, or knowledge that the funds will be used, to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such an act is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.

"5. Ordered to declare, by spokesman and de facto leader, Ivo Tanku Tapang for AGC defendants, and Communications Secretary Christoperh Anu Fobeneh a.k.a. Chris Anu for AIG defendants, and post on their social media forums on Facebook and YouTube that: 'Any civilians who do not obey their 'total lockdown' orders on February 6, 2020 through February 12, 2020, will not be harmed and they will not agree or provide funding to the armed groups to commit any acts of killings, abductions, destruction of property, torture, maiming of anyone.'"

Trying to stop an alleged civil war / revolution / reprisal against civilians in Cameroon via a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court seems like a tall order, and Judge Anderson doesn't go for it. He rejects the demand on procedural grounds (such as failure to adequately explain why notice wasn't given to the defendants), but adds:

The Court additionally concludes that CAVAT has not satisfied its burden to satisfy the requirements for injunctive relief or to establish that the injunction it seeks would prevent the irreparable harm it claims it will suffer as a result of the most recent lockdown threats.

Unfortunately, it is not clear that any injunction the Court could issue would provide Plaintiff with the relief it seeks. The criminal statutes on which CAVAT bases its civil claims already prohibit the activities CAVAT seeks to prevent Defendants from conducting, and at least two of those statutes do not appear to create a private right of action…. "It would be doubly difficult to find a private damage action within the Neutrality Act, since this would have the practical effect of eliminating prosecutorial discretion in an area where the normal desirability of such discretion is vastly augmented by the broad leeway traditionally accorded the Executive in matters of foreign affairs." …

Additionally, although the Antiterrorism Act ("ATA") authorizes a civil remedy for nationals of the United States to sue for injuries they have suffered "by reason of an act of international terrorism" and recover treble damages, the statute does not expressly provide for injunctive relief. Plaintiff cites to no authority applying the ATA in which a court has granted injunctive relief like that sought here. Instead, the injunctive relief Plaintiff seeks appears to be designed more to trigger future contempt proceedings than to prevent Plaintiff's irreparable harm.

The Court additionally notes that by seeking an order requiring Defendants to make certain statements disavowing a lockdown, CAVAT asks this Court to compel Defendants to make certain statements. That type of relief raises significant First Amendment considerations. See Riley v. Nat'l Fed'n of Blind, Inc. (1988). The First Amendment protects not only "the right to speak freely," but also "the right to refrain from speaking at all." Wooley v. Maynard (1977); see also Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Group of Boston (1995) ("[O]ne important manifestation of the principle of free speech is that one who chooses to speak may also decide what not to say.")….