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(Douala) - Cameroonians are attacked by police, politicians, the media, and even their own communities if they are suspected of having sexual relations with a person of the same sex, four human rights organizations said in a joint report released today.

The government should take urgent action to decriminalize such consensual conduct and to ensure the full human rights of all Cameroonians, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, said Alternatives-Cameroun, l'Association pour la défense des droits des homosexuels, Human Rights Watch, and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

The 62-page report, "Criminalizing Identities: Rights Abuses in Cameroon Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity," details how the government uses article 347 bis of the Penal Code to deny basic rights to people perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). The report describes arrests, beatings by the police, abuses in prison, and a homophobic atmosphere that encourages shunning and abuse in the community. The consequence is that people are not punished for a specific outlawed practice, but for a homosexual identity, the groups said.

"The poor and the young, who often have no way to get legal assistance, suffer the most from Cameroon's abusive atmosphere," said Steave Nemande, president of Alternatives-Cameroun. "Even after they get out of jail, families and friends often reject them. They are denied education, jobs, even a place to live. Their lives are ruined."

The report, based on 45 interviews with victims, documents abuse by police, including beatings on the victims' bodies and even the soles of their feet. Prison guards ignore abuses by other prisoners, including beatings, rapes, and urinating and defecating on the victims' possessions.

Those arrested under article 347 bis are routinely held without charge in excess of the minimum time allowed by Cameroonian law, the groups found. Judges may sentence them to prison time without credible evidence that they engaged in a homosexual act. Even when judges have dismissed charges, prosecutors have sometimes charged the accused again before they could be freed.

Prejudice and discrimination against the gay and lesbian population of Cameroon is pervasive. Women who do not dress or act in "typically feminine" ways are often singled out for persecution. Like men, they can be ostracized by their families or suffer physical abuse at the hands of family members, which is especially difficult in a society where women are expected to remain dependent and in the family fold.

Women suspected of having sex with women can be specifically targeted for rape and sexual attacks in their communities and risk losing custody of their children. They have little recourse to the law because of their fear of arrest and jail.

The media in Cameroon compound the repressive climate, the groups said. Newspapers have published the names of those purported to be gay and invented the term "homocraty" to promote fear and hatred of people who engage in same-sex relations, depicting them as power-hungry, corrupt, rich, and intent on controlling the country.

"Lesbian, gays, and bisexuals in Cameroon are considered lower than dogs," said Sébastien Mandeng of l'Association pour la défense des droits des homosexuels. "They face great injustice because of homophobia."

The criminalization of same-sex activities has serious health consequences, the groups said. Cameroon does not have HIV/AIDS programs designed to meet the special needs of LGBT people, despite evidence that this population is vulnerable to the virus. The government does not track HIV prevalence and conducts no surveys of behavior in these communities related to transmission of the virus. Furthermore, the government prohibits the distribution of condoms in prisons, although HIV prevalence in prisons is high, male prisoners engage in homosexual sex, and rape is common.

"People living in secrecy are vulnerable to blackmail and abuse," said Boris Dittrich, advocacy director of the LBGT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. "Arrests may be relatively rare, but the physical violence and mental cruelty against this population are devastating."

Condemnation by international bodies has not been enough to end the persecution of people under article 347 bis. In December 2008, during the Universal Periodic Review of Cameroon's human rights practices, the UN Human Rights Council recommended decriminalizing homosexual conduct. In July 2010, the UN Human Rights Committee called on the government to stem social prejudice and stigmatization against LGBT people, including in public health programs, to "ensure universal access to HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, care and support." The government of Cameroon refused both recommendations.

Alternatives-Cameroun submitted a petition with more than 1,500 signatures to the National Assembly in November 2009 seeking decriminalization of same-sex relations. However, the National Assembly has not even considered introducing the topic into official discussion.

"The criminalization of same-sex conduct has consequences beyond the obvious unacceptable arrests," said Monica Mbaru, African coordinator of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. "It drives inequality within the justice system itself and promotes violence within people's homes, families, and communities. The government of Cameroon needs to accept responsibility to ensure all Cameroonians live free of discrimination, whatever their orientation or identity."

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