(Nairobi) – Cameroonian authorities on March 27, 2012, illegally shut down a human rights workshop in Yaoundé that was to include discussion of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and arrested one of the workshop organizers, Human Rights Watch said today. The action violated rights to freedom of assembly and expression under both Cameroonian and international law, Human Rights Watch said.
The workshop, scheduled to be held at a Yaoundé hotel, had been authorized by the local sub-prefect, an administrative official, in accordance with Cameroonian law. But the sub-prefect revoked his authorization as the event was beginning, upon realizing that the “human rights” to be discussed included the rights of sexual minorities. Police arrested Stéphane Koche, an activist working with the convening organizations, and detained him for three hours before releasing him without charge.
“Cameroonians have the right to freedom of assembly and expression, even if their viewpoints are not popular in the eyes of the authorities,” said Boris Dittrich, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Shutting down a workshop and detaining an activist is no way for Yaoundé authorities to treat people who have come together to talk about human rights.”
The workshop, which was scheduled to take place over three days, was coordinated by three groups – Adolescents against AIDS (SID’ADO), Association pour la Défense de Homosexuel-le-s, (Association for the Defense of Gays and Lesbians, ADEPHO), and Collective des Familles des Enfants Homosexuel-le-s (Collective of Families of Gay and Lesbian Children). It was to include a range of human rights and professional organizations, including women’s rights groups, AIDS organizations, and groups representing pharmacists, doctors, and lawyers. Representatives of the United States and German embassies in Yaoundé were also present.
Participants told Human Rights Watch that shortly after they arrived at the hotel, local youth, described by a participant as “thugs,” arrived. A representative of the Cameroonian Youth Rally – an anti-gay youth organization with no public authority or policing powers – arrived with a group of young men and told participants, “Leave – this meeting is not going to take place.”
Shortly thereafter, police, gendarmes, and civilian authorities, including the prefect of Mfoundi and the Yaoundé sub-prefect who had authorized the meeting, arrived and dispersed participants.
Participants told Human Rights Watch that the sub-prefect claimed that he had authorized a meeting that was to address HIV/AIDS, not a meeting at which homosexuality would be discussed. “They said it was illegal to talk about homosexuality because homosexuality is illegal,” one participant said.
Cameroonian law prohibits “sexual relations with a person of the same sex.” The existing law violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to privacy (article 17) and the right to be free from discrimination (articles 2 and 26). Cameroon has no law that could justify a prohibition on meetings to discuss the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.
Contacted by Human Rights Watch regarding the legal basis for shutting down the meeting, a Justice Ministry official said he was not aware of the incident.
“Using Cameroon’s disputed sodomy law as a pretext to prohibit discussion of sexual rights is unfair and extreme, compounding one human rights violation with another,” Dittrich said. “The Cameroonian authorities should apologize to the workshop organizers and permit them to hold this workshop and others, safely and peacefully.”