LGBT activists in Cameroon face threats and violence
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In Cameroon, where a homosexual act can get you six months to five years in prison, people defending members of the gay community are now being targeted as well.
A report by the international human rights group Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’homme (FIDH) released on Wednesday shows that the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community’s allies and defenders face grave dangers in the West African country.
LGBT activists say they are in danger of arbitrary arrests, having their homes burned, burglaries and “violent deaths”. They also also say that they cannot rely on the police for protection.
Entrapped and imprisoned
Intimidation is one of the primary methods used to target activists, who are regularly threatened by anonymous messages via SMS or Facebook.
Michel Togué, a lawyer who has defended members of the LGBT community, says that even his children have been threatened. One message he received said that if he didn’t stop “defending homo ideas” he might find himself “at the bedside of his dying children”. This was sent with an image of his children, photographed walking home from school.
A member of the ACODEVO association, which seeks to repeal anti-gay laws and defend “poor and vulnerable communities”, was the victim of an entrapment scheme in 2013. After receiving an SMS from a man and setting up a meeting, he was condemned to one year in prison for planning a “tentative homosexual act”.
Sometimes, it is more than just threats. The director of the human rights advocacy group REDHAC, Maximilienne Ngo Mbe, received death threats while her niece, who lives with her, was sexually assaulted and tortured by a group of armed men. Previously, unidentified assailants had also tried to kidnap Ngo Mbe’s son from his school.
At first it was primarily activists who were threatened and assaulted. Now, more and more lawyers are being targeted. Out of 2,500 practicing lawyers in Cameroon, only four or five are willing to defend homosexuals. And those who do are often stigmatised by their peers, the FIDH report said.
'The mama of queers'
But despite the noxious atmosphere, activists like Alice Nkom, a lawyer and the founder of the Association de Defense des Homosexuel-les (Association for the defense of gay men and women), continue to fight for LGBT rights.
“I am under constant security,” Nkom, 70, told FRANCE 24. She said that she no longer risks walking in the street, but doesn’t plan to leave her country.
“I made arrangements," she said. "I have a security contract with a company, because the state doesn’t ensure my safety."
Her complaints to the police are never followed up. But despite the threats, Nkom, a grandmother, said that she is not intimidated.
“If I was afraid, I would have stopped,” she said. “I got myself in this battle knowing the risks…I defend the indefensible.”
One of Nkom’s most notable clients was one of Cameroon's leading gay rights activists, Roger Jean-Claude Mbédé, who was condemned to three years in prison for homosexuality before dying sequestered in his home.
“Recently on a television show, they accused me of being the 'mama of queers'. They said I was sent by the West to pillage Africa,” said Nkom, laughing.
The first black woman to succeed at passing the bar exam in Cameroon, Nkom openly denounces the hypocrisy of her government. “In my career of 47 years, I've defended many criminals, but I was never threatened for that,” she said.
Nkom says she hasn’t lost hope and she is confident that she will “win the battle”, with the help of the international community. “If I did not have outside help, they would have already killed me,” she said. In 2013, Nkom won the German branch of Amnesty International’s human rights prize.
She will continue with the support of her family and said that she hopes to see future generations continue the work.
“Everyone in my family is behind me. The new generation is sensible to these questions. My grandson wants to one day take over for me, and he has begun taking aikido lessons so he can defend himself,” she said.
Other activists speak of the importance of “outside help”. The report by FIDH highlights international media that transmit information that local media cannot. Cameroonian journalist Alex Gustave Azebaze says he learned of the murder of philosophy student Eric Ohena Lembebe, who was found with a broken neck and feet after sending a "love text" to another man, from “buzz from the outside" – that is, from RFI (Radio France Internationale), FRANCE 24 and international humanitarian organisations.
In July of 2013, Issa Tchiroma Bakary, the minister of communication in Cameroon, said the following in response to Lembebe’s death:
“First of all, there is no state plot, nor social plot in Cameroon, which is directed against homosexuals… These acts can be committed against either heterosexual or homosexual individuals. It is firstly a safety issue, which is naturally the responsibility of the state to solve.”
However, many say that the government does not work to protect members of the LGBT community but rather to intimidate them.
And, Azebaze says, the press is often hesitant to write about such a sensitive subject. “Here the press has written few articles, because they are in an ambivalent position. If the subject irritates those in power, they don’t dare intervene.”