In Cameroon, the number of prosecutions and convictions of LGBTI people has dropped markedly after years of hard work by local activists and two attorneys advocating for recognition of the human rights of LGBTI people.
Cameroon has not repealed the law known as “347 bis,” which provides for up to five years in prison for same-sex intimacy, but that law is being much less frequently used against LGBTI Cameroonians simply for being gay or lesbian.
In its annual report for 2014, the advocacy group Camfaids (the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS) reported that prosecutions for homosexuality in Yaoundé dropped by 58 percent from 2012 to 2014. During that same period, the number of LGBTI convictions fell even more — from 16 to 4.
Attorney Alice Nkom, one of two Cameroonian lawyers active in the defense of LGBTI defendants, said that a similar decrease has occurred in the Douala area.
According to observers in Cameroon, the improvement in Cameroon has been caused by:
Intervention by LGBTI-friendly lawyers after each arrest. (In Yaoundé, this work is done by the law firm of Michel Togué, paid through the end of 2014 by a grant that Camfaids received. Nkom has done much the same, primarily in Douala but also Yaoundé.)
- Advocacy for individual defendants and for the human rights of LGBTI Cameroonians in general by LGBTI rights groups in Cameroon, the national health services organization Camnafaw, several international advocacy groups and even this blog, Erasing 76 Crimes.
- Advocacy and interventions by representatives of Western embassies.
- Unpublicized commitments by some government officials in Cameroon to improve the country’s human rights record.
Currently, Togué said, “I have the impression that police officers avoid targeting this offense in their investigations.”
Serge Douomong Yotta agrees. The executive director of Affirmative Action, an association that fights against HIV / AIDS in Yaoundé’s LGBTI community, he said:
“In 2015, everything suggests that we are heading in the right direction. Indeed, we hear less and less about incarceration. In some cases that I know of, the charges have been settled in the police station.“
Unlike in the past, Togué said, when LGBTI people are arrested the case does not involve homosexuality, but other offenses — “sometimes it is sexual conduct with a minor, sometimes theft. “
Why the change?
“I could be wrong, but I think that people in the legal system increasingly are showing tolerance, even if those affected have not noticed it,” Togué said. “Perhaps we should put an end to our various denunciations that embarrass political authorities.”
Ella Ella J. Eitel, executive director of Camfaids, is not convinced that Cameroonian government officials are in fact working behind the scenes to improve the human rights situation in the country. He said:
“I have seen no specific evidence of that in the field. So far, I have heard public speeches and promises about arrests of LGBT people, but in practice nothing has been done, at least as far as Camfaids knows. ”
The main reasons for a drop in numbers of LGBTI people in court and in prison in Yaoundé on homosexuality charges, he said, are:
- The effectiveness of interventions by Michel Togué and his law firm after each arrest.
- Advocacy, legal assistance, and workshops for the LGBTI community, provided by local LGBTI advocacy groups such as Camfaids, Humanity First Cameroon, Affirmative Action, Cerlhudus (a new local LGBTI association created in 2014), Lady’s Cooperation and AVAF (the Association for the Promotion of Women).
- The hard work of international institutions such as Swiss Lawyers Without Borders and REDHAC (the Network of Human Rights Defenders in Central Africa).
- Articles published by Erasing 76 Crimes.
- The unpublicized work and commitment of internationals representatives in Cameroon, including the French Embassy, the U.S. Embassy, UNAIDS (the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS) and The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
For Nkom, improving the lives of LGBTI Cameroonians is a goal she has struggled to achieve for more than 10 years. She was the first Cameroonian lawyer advocating for recognition of the human rights of LGBTI people, and remains the best-known abroad. She said:
“The issue of homosexuality in Cameroon, which I’ve been dealing with for a decade, is now known worldwide.
“I pursue this work both as a lawyer and as an advocate for human rights in several associations created for this purpose. This is part of a strategy I developed seeking the goal of decriminalization of homosexuality through the judicial process.
“I welcomed the arrival on the battlefield of many young defenders of LGBT people. They’re so brave that I call them “my heros.” They allow me to work actively and efficiently in court on the last stage of the fight. There I work with renowned international lawyers such as Swiss attorney Saskia Ditisheim, president of Lawyers Without Borders Switzerland; the law offices of Clifford Chance; and the London-based Human Dignity Trust with its famous international lawyers Jonathan Cooper, Téa Braun and more. …
“We have obtained the unfailing support of Western institutions that defend human rights, especially the rights of LGBT people. They are very useful and supportive, passing along our message to places where doors have been slammed in our faces.
“Some of this activity is done openly, sometimes very loudly. In other cases, it is done without publicity, when a quiet approach is needed to advance our cause.
“We work like an orchestra, each playing his instrument to produce this beautiful concert. “
Nkom said tolerance for LGBTI people is spreading outward from Douala and Yaoundé to the rest of the country:
“The number of arrests began to fall and trials have become rare in Douala because I live here. In Douala, my ferocious advocacy in this battle is known and feared by all. … Here I am always on the alert.
“It is normal that this trend is now continuing throughout Cameroon. That includes Yaoundé, where the orchestra I mentioned works determinedly to replace repression with legally protected LGBT rights.
“That is the mission I have been working on since 2003, when ADEFHO (registered as the Association for the Defense of Homosexuality) was created in Douala, at my own risk.
“I remain open to all who want to bring ideas and constructive actions to this cause which needs all of us, and more, to allow homosexuals to leave the ghetto and become full citizens in Cameroon.”
According to Yves Yomb, executive director of the anti-Aids, pro-LGBTI-rights group Alternatives-Cameroon in Douala, arrests of LGBTI people have decreased considerably. “There are virtually no cases of LGBTI people in prison in Douala,” he said.
Patience Mbeh, LGBTI director at REDHAC, says it is “possible” that conditions have improved in Cameroon’s major cities, but that is not the case throughout the nation’s 10 regions.
“To our knowledge several suspected homosexuals are languishing in prisons without legal representation in rural areas (including Edea, where we have evidence),” she said.
Nevertheless, Cameroon is different now from what it was in 2012 and 2013,
When activist/journalist Eric Lembembe was assassinated,
- When Roger Mbede was jailed for a romantic text message and later died at his family home without medical care,
- When a violent mob invaded a celebration of the International Day against Homophobia,
- When members of the anti-gay Movement of Cameroonian Youth marched through the streets of Yaoundé,
- When the law offices of Michel Togué were robbed, and
- When an arsonist struck the offices and clinic of Alternatives-Cameroon.
Serge Douomong Yotta at Affirmative Action cites “beautiful developments in Cameroon,” which create a “positive and progressive image” for the country with regard to LGBT arrests.
Reasons for the change, he said, are interventions by activists and lawyers, but also:
- The effectiveness of two attorneys — Michel Togué and Jathan Ndongo — working as part of an anti-HIV project run by Camnafaw (the Cameroon National Association for Family Welfare Planning, which is active in the fight against HIV / AIDS). On several occasions, Ndongo’s intervention prevented an LGBT arrestee from being imprisoned.
- The development of a risk management plan, as part of the same CAMNAFAW project, which teaches LGBT people to avoid risks that could lead to an arrest.
- Peer education programs and constant contact with diplomatic officials by community action organizations in Yaoundé, such as Humanity First, Affirmative Action and Lady’s Cooperation.
Yves Yomb at Alternatives Cameroon added that the causes of the decline in imprisonments are, in his opinion:
- The intervention of lawyers working to defend particular cases. In addition to Michel Togué and Alice Nkom, Saskia Ditisheim of Lawyers Without Borders / Switzerland has also worked on many cases in Cameroon.
- Pleas made for years by most groups representing the LGBTI community in Cameroon (Alternatives Cameroon, ADEFHO, Camfaids, Humanity First, Affirmative Action), which have been working since 2007 for the decriminalization of sex between consenting adults of the same sex.
- International pressure on Cameroon, which has made Cameroonian authorities a focus for criticism and sometimes forced them to react.
- Silent diplomacy by some embassies that have made LGBTI rights central to their diplomatic agenda regarding human rights in Cameroon.
- The fact that some aid programs to Cameroon have begun to negotiate locally for human rights, including the rights of LGBTI people.
Despite the improvement of LGBTI life in Cameroon’s major cities, at least regarding arrests and imprisonments, major problems persist.
An unknown number of LGBTI prisoners remain in rural areas, although in Yaoundé, according to Togué, only one remains. That case involves a lesbian convicted not only of violating “347 bis” but also of a sexual offense involving a minor.
Togué notes that the new Archbishop of Douala, Monsignor Samuel Kleda, does not follow the compassionate example of Pope Francis Pope. Like his colleague, Cameroonian Cardinal Christian Tumi, Kleda has called for war against homosexuality.
Harassment of LGBTI people continues. Only this month, the president of Humanity First Cameroon, Jules Eloundou, returning from a trip to Europe, was briefly kidnapped in an extortion attempt by a policeman at Yaoundé-Nsimalen airport.
On July 22, police at the Medong station in Yaoundé arrested a man on suspicion of homosexuality. They tried to force him to undergo an anal examination, but he refused.
“No, Cameroon has not become more tolerant,” says Yves Yomb of Alternatives-Cameroon:
“If the numbers of LGBTI people in prison have decreased, it’s because LGBTI rights violations have changed. We still encounter many cases of:
- Physical violence
and these cases sometimes take place with the complicity of security forces (as was the case of the president of Humanity First at Yaoundé Airport on his return to Cameroon). The victims of these cases, when they dare to complain about the extortion, in turn tend to be accused of homosexuality, since that was the core of the extortioner’s scam. Which means that most of the victims of these cases suffer in silence and just refer cases to associations working with LGBTI. They don’t bring the case to the police.
“Also, newspaper articles and religious sermons continue to be outspoken about homosexuality, which helps to prejudice the general population against us and to pit one against the other. “
At the end of 2014, when the number of LGBTI prisoners in Yaoundé had fallen almost to zero, funding ended for Camfaids’ supportive visits to LGBTI prisoners, for its legal monitoring unit and for legal assistance that helped keep people out of prison. Those services had been funded by the French charity ESTHER.
For the future, Togué said, “Without a monitoring unit, it is difficult to made predictions. In terms of legal assistance through Camfaids, although no funds remain, my office remains on alert for any reported cases.”
Serge Douomong Yotta at Affirmative Action concluded:
“Attitudes are changing. The stakes are high in terms of health prevention and care of HIV among MSM and transgender people. The Global Fund, UNAIDS and PEPFAR [United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] provide technical and financial assistance to help the country deal with all these people. So more and more health authorities — and even members of the public — understand the different challenges of integrating human rights with health.
“But we need more time. I was shocked by what happened to Jules [Eloundou]. Targeted actions to denounce such cases should be developed and carried out.
“But in general, things are going well.”
- After attacks, LGBTI defenders in Cameroon seek safety (76crimes.com)
- Abandoned: Plans to keep AIDS fighters safe in Cameroon (76crimes.com)
- Cameroon groups: It’s too dangerous to keep fighting AIDS (76crimes.com)
- Peaceful celebration in Cameroon a year after mob attack (76crimes.com)