(Nairobi) – Authorities in Cameroon should promptly investigate threats against two prominent lawyers who are representing clients accused of homosexuality, Human Rights Watch said. The government should publicly denounce the threats against the defense lawyers and ensure that they receive necessary protection.
Since October 18, 2012, Alice Nkom, a lawyer based in Douala, and Michel Togue, a Yaoundé-based lawyer, have received a series of anonymous threats by cell phone and email related to their work on several high-profile homosexuality cases. One text message to Togue threatened his school-age children and warned him to stop defending people accused of homosexuality. A subsequent email message to Togue warned, “In this country there is no place for faggots and their defenders.” The sender attached photos of Togue’s children leaving their school building. An email message to Nkom stated, “If you don’t stop [‘renoncer’], you’ll see.” The email reiterated the threats to Togue’s children, warning Nkom, “This will be bloody.” It also threatened Nkom’s children.
“Cameroonian authorities should immediately investigate to find out who is threatening these courageous human rights defenders,” said Neela Ghoshal, researcher in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “The government should make clear to the public that everyone has a right to defense, and that threats against defense attorneys will not be tolerated.”
Cameroon is one of a handful of countries that aggressively prosecutes consensual same-sex intimacy. Article 347 bis of Cameroon’s penal code criminalizes homosexuality, punishing “sexual relations with a person of the same sex” with sentences ranging from six months to five years. At least four Cameroonians are serving prison sentences on homosexuality charges. Nkom and Togue are representing them in appeals of their convictions. At least one other Cameroonian is in pretrial detention on the basis of the same article. Justice Ministry records show that in 2011, 12 of 14 people prosecuted for homosexuality were convicted.
Human Rights Watch research conducted in Cameroon in October found that many homosexuality cases are marked by compounded violations of due process rights, including denying suspects the right to legal counsel during the investigation phase. Prosecutors and courts have relied on flimsy evidence, such as the possession of condoms and lubricant in one case, or the type of alcoholic beverage preferred by a suspect in another, as “proof” of homosexuality.
The homophobic climate in Cameroon, reinforced by government policy, contributes to a hostile environment for lawyers and other human rights defenders protecting the rights of LGBT people and of people suspected of homosexuality. Lawyers representing clients in homosexuality cases are regularly denounced in the media, with the lawyers’ own sexual orientation called into question. Nkom has previously been warned by fellow lawyers, as well as by the former minister of justice, to stop her activities.
The recent threats of violence against Nkom and Togue and their children take the climate of hostility to a new level, Human Rights Watch said. Togue filed a complaint at the regional division headquarters of the central judicial police on October 18, 2012, while Nkom filed a complaint with the Prosecutor of the Republic on October 23. Cameroon should investigate the senders of the email messages, which originate from a Gmail address, and the text messages, which originate from two different numbers linked to MTN and Orange network SIM cards, Human Rights Watch said.
The government of Cameroon has failed to respond effectively to previous attacks on LGBT people and their supporters, and in some cases, government actions have inflamed hostility against LGBT people. In February, police in Douala arrested a young man, accused him of homosexuality, and made him denounce the organization Alternatives-Cameroun on television in exchange for his release. The denunciation and ensuing public hostility forced the organization, which provides HIV-AIDS services to men who have sex with men (MSM), to suspend its activities.
In March, authorities in Yaoundé illegally shut down a workshop on the rights of sexual and gender minorities, in violation of the rights to freedom of association and expression. Several months later, also in Yaoundé, a mob violently attacked a gathering in celebration of the International Day against Homophobia, organized by groups that provide services to LGBT people.
Cameroonian authorities regularly arrest and prosecute people on the basis of their alleged sexual orientation, in violation of Cameroon’s international human rights commitments. The Association for the Defense of Gays and Lesbians, in Douala, has documented at least 51 arrests on the basis of article 347 bis since 2008. Police, gendarmes, and prison guards have also used violence against people suspected of homosexuality in several cases to extract confessions, Human Rights Watch found in recent research in Cameroon.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, in Toonen v. Australia(1994), ruled that the criminalization of consensual same-sex conduct violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, specifically, the right to privacy and the right to non-discrimination. According to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, arrests on the basis of sexual orientation are, by definition, human rights violations.
“Cameroon should respect its own constitutional guarantees of equality and stop arresting people on the basis of same-sex conduct between consenting adults,” Ghoshal said. “But as long as such arrests take place, the government should ensure that defense lawyers are able to safely perform their duties, and that the accused are guaranteed the right to a fair trial.”