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Gay Cameroonian’s family 'sequestered' him before he died

© AFP / Roger Jean-Claude Mbédé and Alice Nkom
Text by: Assiya HAMZA
4 min

Roger Jean-Claude Mbédé, sentenced to three years in prison for homosexuality, died on Friday in his native village in Cameroon. In an interview with FRANCE 24, his lawyer, Alice Nkom, accuses Mbédé’s family of "letting him die".


In March 2011, Roger Jean-Claude Mbédé, a Cameroonian philosophy student, was arrested after sending a text message to another man. The message read: “I’m in love with you.”

According to a statement he made to Human Rights Watch, Mbédé was then beaten by police.

One month later, he was sentenced to three years in prison for homosexuality, which, in Cameroon, is a crime punishable with up to five years of jail time.

On January 10, 2014, Mbédé died in Ngoumou, the small village in which he was born. He was 35.

Though he had been released on bail in 2012, his sentence was ultimately confirmed, despite international outrage -- particularly among gay rights activists, who viewed his case as emblematic of the struggles faced by gays in Africa. When he died, Mbédé was waiting for Cameroon’s Supreme Court to rule on an appeal he had filed.

Mbédé ended up admitting that he had had several homosexual affairs, and Mbédé’s lawyer, Alice Nkom, says that Mbédé -- who was diagnosed with testicular cancer in July -- died “sequestered” by his family.

FRANCE 24 interviewed Nkom, president of the association for the defence of LGBT rights in Cameroon (ADEFHO).

F24: How did you learn of Mbédé’s death?

AN: I learned on Friday. Two days before, we had sent a messenger into the village because [Mbédé] wasn’t answering the phone anymore. He was taking refuge in his hometown because there was a warrant out for his arrest [after his sentence was confirmed], which meant he could be taken to prison any time.

We had received disturbing news: [Mbédé] was sequestered. First his family claimed that he was away on a trip. But then they brought the messenger into a little room in which Roger had been staying. He was very sick, in very, very bad shape. We were trying to see how to get him out of there. We were even considering sending an ambulance and bodyguards. And then, we got the news [that he was dead].

It’s very difficult to accept. His arrest totally shattered him. He got sick in prison, and it was only when he was temporarily released on bail that he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He needed medical treatment that he was not able to get when he was sequestered at home. His family told the messenger that they wanted him to die to cleanse him of the curse of his homosexuality. They let him die.

F24: Do you plan on pursuing legal action against the family?

AN: The only legal measures to be taken must be taken against the government of Cameroon, which is responsible for the slow death of Roger Jean-Claude Mbédé. The government is supposed to protect minorities. By leaving the gay minority to fend for itself, Cameroon is the criminal in this case. When activists are threatened, like I was, no one else does anything.

The victim of the government’s complicity in the country’s homophobia was Roger. He was just a student who had never had any problems with the law before he was arrested. His crime was sending a text message. And the punishment was death. I will continue this fight until we get a ruling from the Supreme Court. It’s the only procedure that can lead to the end of a system that penalises people for love. We almost got there, but with Roger’s death, the trial won’t take place. Going forward, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure the case of Jonas and Franky, two Cameroonian transvestites suspected of being gay because they dress up as women and drink Bailey’s, is brought before the Supreme Court.

Roger Jean-Claude Mbédé did not die for nothing. He has become a symbol, even if that was not his intention. When he was in prison, I brought him bins of mail coming in from all over the world!

F24: How are you dealing with his death on a personal level?

AN: I’ve been very affected by it. I was with him from A to Z on his journey toward death. His family holds me responsible. I cannot even go visit his grave for the moment. Maybe later, in one year or two…I have lost a child. He was a client, since he hired me to take care of his case, but above all he was my child. We had a very strong bond. He was my son.

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