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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 scramble to fly African migrants out of the country in the run-up to the elections.

Many of the Cameroonian migrants in a Mississippi detention centre refused to sign, fearing death at the hands of Cameroonian government forces responsible for widespread civilian killings, and because they had asylum hearings pending.

According to multiple accounts, detainees were threatened, choked, beaten, pepper-sprayed and threatened with more violence to make them sign. Several were put in handcuffs by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) officers, and their fingerprints were taken forcibly in place of a signature on documents called stipulated orders of removal, by which the asylum seekers waive their rights to further immigration hearings and accept deportation.

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 the possibility that Ice could soon be under new management.

“The abuse we are witnessing, especially right now against black immigrants, isn’t new, but it is escalating,” said Christina Fialho, executive director of an advocacy group, Freedom for Immigrants (FFI). “In late September, early October of this year, we began to receive calls on our hotline from Cameroonian and Congolese immigrants detained in Ice prisons across the country. And they were being subjected to threats of deportation, often accompanied by physical abuse.”

“The reality is that Ice operates in the shadows. They thrive in secrecy,” Fialho added. “We know that the US government is deporting key witnesses in an effort to silence survivors and absolve Ice of legal liability.”

A plane carrying 60 Cameroonian and 28 Congolese asylum seekers was quietly flown out of Fort Worth Alliance airport in Texas on 13 October to deliver them to their home countries. The charter plane did not release a flight plan, but it was tracked by immigration rights group Witness at the Border, which said it stopped in Senegal, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and then Kenya before flying back to Texas.

The Cameroonian deportees were from the country’s English-speaking minority, which has been the target of widespread abuses, including extrajudicial killings, by government security forces seeking to crush a separatist movement. The Trump administration cut the country’s trade privileges at the beginning of this year because of the persistent abuses.

Most of the deportees on the flight had testified that they had suffered detention without charge and torture at the hands of the Cameroonian military, and had relatives who had been killed. They were detained for questioning on arrival in Douala, but some were freed after their families paid bribes, and have since gone into hiding.

As for the others, the lawyer Evaristus Nkongchu said: “We have no knowledge of what happened to those that were deported. We know they arrived, but we haven’t heard what happened after they arrived at the airport.”

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