Africa

Quick response to new anti-gay persecution in Cameroon

By Erin Royal Brokovitch

Trois avocats qui (de gauche à droite: Michel Togué, Alice Nkom et Saskia Ditisheim (Photo de  Saskia Ditisheim)

Three lawyers who represent LGBTI defendants in Cameroon (from left to right): Michel Togué, Alice Nkom and Saskia Ditisheim (Photo courtesy of Saskia Ditisheim)

The LGBTI community in Yaoundé responded quickly last week to the news that it has again become the target of persecution by law enforcement.

Starting immediately, Cameroonian activists began working to keep seven detainees out of Yaoundé’s central prison, a location that can be especially hazardous for LGBTI inmates.

The case began on Oct. 1, when seven people were arrested on homosexuality-related charges and detained near the prison at the Kondengui police station.

Police said that neighbors had alerted them about a house that was frequented by effeminate homosexuals.  Police delayed the raid until a group of people had assembled there.

After a friend of one of the arrestees notified the advocacy group Humanity First Cameroon about the incident, the head of that group’s human rights section gave high priority to the case. Other Cameroonian LGBTI associations, international partners and lawyers also swung into action on behalf of the detainees.

Humanity First logo

Logo of Humanity First

All the accused are charged with prostitution and homosexuality, but not everyone was apprehended in the same way.

Only six of the seven, including one person known in the community under the name Naomi, were arrested during the raid on their friend’s home.

The seventh, known as Dolores, was arrested later. After receiving a call from Naomi, Dolores rushed to the police station to bring food to his friend. But instead of simply being allowed to deliver the food, Dolores also was arrested. Police explained the arrest by saying that Dolores appeared to be gay because he was wearing women’s clothes.

(Although same-sex intimacy is punishable by up to five years in prison, neither cross-dressing nor homosexuality is illegal under Cameroonian law.)

Attorney Saskia Ditisheim, president of Lawyers Without Borders Switzerland, said. “This is a witch hunt that must be stopped.”  She added:

“The police did not hesitate to commit an offense by making detailed preparations for violating the private home of a suspect.

“In January 2013, alongside attorneys Alice Nkom and Michel Toguè, we won the acquittal of two of the seven people arrested. [Naomi and Dolores were released from prison following that acquittal.] This latest arrest is intolerable. We call for their immediate release.”

In their eagerness to arrest homosexuals, Cameroonian police committed three procedural errors:  the home invasion (in a country where the constitution declares the home to be inviolable); arrests on the basis of homosexuality, which is not illegal under Cameroonian law; and detention of the arrestees for longer than the 48 hours allowed in the Cameroonian code of criminal procedure.

In time, it became clear that homophobia, rather than Cameroonian law, was the basis for the seven arrests.

When activists visited the Kondengui police station on Oct. 2 and asked to see Dolores, police asked whether they thought Dolores was a woman or a man.

Police also asked whether the activists agreed with how Dolores was attired.  They became upset when they were asked whether Dolores had been arrested for wearing the wrong clothes.

Roger Mbede

Roger Mbede

Police laughed mockingly whenever Dolores came in sight. They said to each other,

“He’s homosexual! He’s a man!”

“The world is going all wrong, for sure.”

“They have to be prosecuted. This is intolerable.”

In Cameroon, despite the wording of the law, police and the courts continue to act as if homosexuality were illegal. In two examples from among many, Roger Mbede was sentenced to three years in prison for sending a love text to a male acquaintance, while Dolores and Naomi were previously sentenced to five years in prison by a judge who declared them to be gay because they drank Baileys liqueur (a verdict that was annulled in January 2013).

Michel Togue (Photo by Eric O. Lembembe)

Michel Togué (Photo de Éric O. Lembembe)

On Oct. 2, two associates of attorney Michel Togué were granted an appointment at 9 a.m. the next day to discuss the case with the police commander.  But instead, in the early hours of the morning, the prisoners were taken to the Ekounou trial court in Yaoundé.

After extensive negotiations between the detainees’ advocates and prosecutors, the defendants were returned to the police station in the late afternoon. Since then, they have been held there pending further investigations.

One of the detainees was offered his release in exchange for 200,000 CFA francs (about US $400).

The return of the detainees to the police station allowed LGBTI community activists to breathe a brief sigh of relief.  But they remained vigilant, preparing further advocacy on behalf of the arrestees, whom they said had not committed any crime, but merely existed as they were created without doing harm to anyone.

The author of this article is an LGBTI rights activist in Cameroon who writes under a pseudonym.

 

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