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Cameroon: Three Years in Prison for Love... Impunity for Hate

Over the last four months, two Cameroonian lawyers have received a series of death threats by email and SMS. The reason? The lawyers, Alice Nkom and Michel Togué, have the audacity to represent clients accused of homosexual conduct.
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"This will be bloody." So reads a text message received by a Cameroonian lawyer in October 2012. "Tell your accomplice that nowhere in this country will [his children] have peace."

Over the last four months, two Cameroonian lawyers have received a series of death threats by email and SMS. The messages have become increasingly vitriolic, with threats to kill the lawyers, their children, and their clients.

The reason? The lawyers, Alice Nkom and Michel Togué, have the audacity to represent clients accused of homosexual conduct, in a social and political context marked by virulent homophobia.

Human Rights Watch recently wrote a letter to Paul Biya, the president of Cameroon, to protest the lack of government response to the threats against Togué and Nkom.

Since 2010, at least 28 people have been prosecuted in Cameroon for consensual same-sex intimacy, which is punishable by up to five years in prison. Simply being suspected of being lesbian, gay or bisexual is often enough to get someone arrested. What happens next: police and gendarmes torture and intimidate "suspects" -- one technique is to beat detainees on the base of the feet with batons, leaving them unable to walk for days -- while grilling them about whether they have ever had same-sex relationships.

Often, suspects confess. Then they're hauled off to the courts for sham trials, where judges' personal biases about sexual orientation and gender identity often carry more weight than any evidence presented.

Roger Mbede is a case in point. Mbede was arrested in Yaoundé in March 2011 after sending several text messages to a male love interest, C.F., expressing his feelings. The messages were gentlemanly and inoffensive. One of them read, "I've fallen in love with you." Rather than politely turning him down, C.F. reported the matter to the gendarmerie. The gendarmes proposed an ambush: C.F. would invite Roger to his house that evening, and when he arrived, the gendarmes would pounce, Roger's visit serving as "proof" of his homosexuality.

In April 2011, Mbede was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. Togué, a human rights lawyer, learned of his case and took up his defense. Together with Nkom, an indomitable lawyer and activist who founded the Association for the Defense of Homosexuals (Association pour la Défense des Homosexuel-le-s) in 2003, Togué filed an appeal on Mbede's behalf.

Over the next year and a half, as Mbede's appeal slowly worked its way through the judicial machinery, the number of "homosexuality" arrests skyrocketed in Cameroon, giving it the dubious distinction of prosecuting more people for consensual same-sex conduct than any other place in the world. Togué and Nkom began working tirelessly to represent "homosexuality" defendants, often paying expenses out of their own pockets.

Unfortunately, the lawyers' commitment to justice and equal rights for all Cameroonians, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, was not welcome in some quarters. In October 2012, Yaoundé courts held public hearings in two homosexuality cases that had garnered national and international attention: Mbede's case and that of Jonas and Franky, two young transgender people.

The day before Jonas and Franky's hearing, the director of his young daughter's primary school told Togué that she had received a phone call, at the school, from a man instructing her to warn Togué to stop representing "faggots." Starting the same day, both Togué and Nkom received threats by email and SMS. One message to Nkom warned, "If you don't stop, you'll see... an accident [can] quickly happen." Another, to Togué, threatened "Choose one of your children and we'll turn him into a faggot like you."

Togué and Nkom both reported the threats. Togué went to the police commissariat to file a complaint in person, where police told him that if he wanted to avoid threats, he should stop defending homosexuals. Nkom submitted a written complaint to the public prosecutors' office; she never received a response.

The threats have continued, intensifying around the time of Mbede's appeals hearing in December, which he lost, and Jonas and Franky's appeals hearing in January, which they won. Just after Mbede's hearing, Togué received a message reading, "Abandon this madness or you'll go to a funeral the week before each trial." Nkom received a message that threatened violence against her clients.

Making death threats, in writing, is a crime in Cameroon. Under Article 302 of the penal code, it is punishable by two to five years in prison.

The lack of state action to investigate the threats against Togué and Nkom -- particularly when compared to the substantial efforts that law enforcement officials have put into tracking down and prosecuting alleged homosexuals -- is appalling.

In a context in which few lawyers are courageous enough to take up controversial "homosexuality" cases, the state's inaction may amount to an infringement on the right to defense.

It sends the signal that if you send messages of love in Cameroon, you risk spending three years in prison. But if you send messages spewing hate and threatening violence, the state will turn a blind eye.

President Biya stated in a news conference in Paris in late January that "minds are changing" in Cameroon regarding homosexuality. But the government should not sit back and wait for slow social progress, while lawyers are literally putting their lives on the line.

Biya should take the lead by publicly stating that homophobic threats and violence are reprehensible and will not be tolerated. He should ensure that the security forces take immediate steps to investigate the threats against Togué and Nkom.

It is unacceptable for Cameroon, while punishing love, to allow hateful threats of violence to flourish.

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