Help needed for gay prisoner; his lawyer faces death threats

Click the image to see the Indiegogo campaign seeking contributions for Cornelius Fonya's defense fund.

Click the image to see the Indiegogo campaign seeking contributions for Cornelius Fonya’s defense fund.

If you care about fair treatment for victimized LGBTI people worldwide, please contribute to the costs of legal representation for a Cameroonian man sentenced to nine years in prison for homosexuality.

Cornelius Fonya, 35, of Limbe, Cameroon, was disowned by his family after his conviction on a homosexuality charge in a trial marred by improprieties.

Barrister Walter Atoh (Barrister Atoh Walter M. Tchemi, as his name is written in Cameroon)

Attorney Walter Atoh (Barrister Atoh Walter M. Tchemi, as his name is written in Cameroon)

Providing Fonya with adequate legal representation has been difficult, because his attorney received numerous death threats merely for having an LGBTI client. Attorney Walter Atoh (known in Cameroon as Barrister Atoh Walter M. Tchemi) — one of the few lawyers in Cameroon willing to represent LGBTI defendants — fled to London for safety, but will soon return to Cameroon to represent Fonya.

He is appealing the conviction on the basis of procedural irregularities that marred the trial. Those irregularities included the admission of medical/legal documents that were presented by prosecution witnesses but had never introduced during police investigations.

Although he is brave enough to continue working despite death threats, Atoh also needs financial support. He has launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for legal expenses, including:

  • Map of coast Cameroon shows the locations of Limbe, Buea and Kumba. (Map courtesy of Wikipedia)

    Map of coast Cameroon shows the locations of Limbe, Buea and Kumba. (Map courtesy of Wikipedia)

    Costs of preparing and filing necessary legal documents in the case.

  • Cost of court requirements, such as the paperwork required to allow Fonya to appear in court each time his case is discussed. Atoh notes that a series of adjournments frequently occur in Cameroonian courts because only an incomplete panel of judges shows up when hearings are scheduled. (“Then
    you as counsel and your team are forced to drive back, then return on the new date for a hearing — and on that said date the same will happen,” Atoh said.)
  • Two-way transportation by car from his home in Kumba to the court of appeal in Buea.
  • Food and lodging at a moderate-priced hotel in Buea before each court session in order to avoid appearing in court late after a drive from Kumba to Buea.
  • Helping Fonya purchase medications and food, when necessary, because his family members have abandoned him, having judged that his actions were abominable.
Cameroon's location in Africa

Cameroon’s location in Africa

Atoh has been successful in his defense of LGBTI Cameroonians in several previous cases.  C.O., a gay man, was released on bail last year and then fled to Italy, where he is seeking asylum. A lesbian, E.E., similarly fled from Cameroon while she was out on bail awaiting action on homosexuality charges. She is currently in the United States, seeking asylum.  A few years ago, Atoh arranged for the chief prosecutor to dismiss charges against three gay men, by arguing successfully that the investigation of their case had been conducted improperly.

Fonya was convicted in late 2013 of same-sex relations with a man variously reported to be 14, 16, 19 or more than 20 years old. Atoh says the man appears to be more than 20 years old, but he submitted a fraudulent birth certificate that put his age as 16, Atoh said. In its verdict, the court relied on that evidence as accurate, he said.

In Cameroon, the maximum sentence for same-sex relations between adults is five years, but the maximum sentence is doubled for same-sex relations involving someone between the ages of 16 and 21.

Atoh’s defense of Fonya has been disrupted by death threats. Anonymous phone calls from people with disguised voices threatened to kill him and his family if Atoh did not stop representing LGBTI people.

“We will eliminate you and your entire family since you have decided to remain stoic and adamant [in] defending or supporting abominable acts,” said one caller.

In March 2015, faced with continuing death threats, Atoh and his wife left their home and started sleeping in a hotel room.  She left Cameroon for London in March. Atoh joined her in August. Despite the risk, Atoh vows to return to Cameroon to pursue the case.

“Notwithstanding the murder threats against me and my family, I will be going back to Cameroon to continue with my crusade as an LGBTI lawyer,” Atoh said.

Courtyard scene at Buea Central Prison. (Photo courtesy of VoicesofAfricaMobile via YouTube)

Courtyard scene at Buea Central Prison. (Photo courtesy of VoicesofAfricaMobile via YouTube)

Fonya’s imprisonment should be treated as a human rights case, Atoh said. He is currently held at Buea Central Prison, where prisoners in overcrowded cells receive only one meal a day of poorly prepared, starchy food.  They receive 4.4 ounces of soap every six months.

The prison is a breeding ground for scabies, eczema, head lice, thrush, skin rashes and ring worm. Fonya “suffers from almost all of these and needs medications,” Atoh said.

“Cornelius hasn’t got money to pay lawyers for his case and his case is very complicated,” Atoh said. “Consequently he needs support from humanitarian-minded persons. I can’t do that alone as an individual.”

Atoh has received no funding from any organizations, he said. That means he is dependent on the success of the crowd-sourced fundraising campaign for Fonya’s defense on Indiegogo.

The next step in court for Fonya will be a ruling on his request that he be released on bail pending a decision on his appeal.

With one exception, Fonya has been behind bars since Oct. 29, 2012, when a mob seized him, hauled him to the police station, and accused him of same-sex activity.

Before his trial, Fonya posted money for bail and was released.  But he was re-arrested after the youth’s mother complained to the judge that her son had gone “mad” because of the sexual encounter.

For more information, see the article “Cameroon: Gay prisoner’s attorney defies death threats.”


3 thoughts on “Help needed for gay prisoner; his lawyer faces death threats

  1. Pingback: Gay prisoner’s lawyer defies death threats - MambaOnline - Gay South Africa online

  2. Pingback: Cameroon lawyer: It’s time to repeal our anti-gay law | 76 CRIMES

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