(Douala) – The Cameroonian government should rigorously investigate, denounce, and prosecute suspicious break-ins at three human rights defenders’ offices in June, six Cameroonian and international human rights organizations said today. The organizations – Affirmative Action, Alternatives-Cameroun, the Association for the Defense of Homosexuals (ADEFHO), the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), Human Rights Watch, and Humanity First Cameroon – said that those attacked included organizations working with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community.
In the most recent attack, on June 26, unidentified assailants set fire to the Alternatives-Cameroun office in Douala. On June 16, assailants broke into the Yaoundé office of a prominent human rights lawyer, Michel Togué, stealing confidential information. On June 1, a burglary took place at the Douala headquarters of the Central African Human Rights Defenders Network (Réseau de Défenseurs des Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale, or REDHAC). The two most recent attacks targeted groups supporting the rights of LGBTI people, leading activists to attribute homophobic motives to the perpetrators.
“There is no doubt: anti-gay thugs are targeting those who support equal rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” said Eric Ohena Lembembe, executive director of CAMFAIDS, a Yaoundé-based human rights organization. “Unfortunately, a climate of hatred and bigotry in Cameroon, which extends to high levels in government, reassures homophobes that they can get away with these crimes.”
The most recent victim, Alternatives-Cameroun, is among the oldest existing LGBTI organization in the country. It provides HIV testing and counseling services, and advocates for equal rights. On the morning of June 26, staff arrived at the access center and found that a fire had destroyed most of the furniture, as well as computers and medical records of clients who had come in for HIV testing.
In the June 16 break-in at Michel Togué’s office, a laptop, confidential legal files, flash drives, and Togué’s passport were stolen. A large sum of money in a desk drawer was left untouched, although the drawer was opened, suggesting the attack was not a common crime.
Togué has taken on several high profile court cases defending women and men charged with “sexual relations with a person of the same sex” under article 347 bis of Cameroon’s penal code. He has received dozens of death threats by email and text message over the last nine months, including threats to kill his young children. The threats forced Togué’s wife and children to flee the country and seek asylum, but Togué chose to remain in Cameroon to continue his work. Another lawyer who represents LGBTI clients, Alice Nkom, has received similar threats.
The June 1 attack at REDHAC was similar to the one at Togué’s office. Assailants broke into the office and stole computers and flash drives, leaving other valuables untouched. Like Togué, REDHAC’s executive director, Maximilienne Ngo Mbe, has received death threats by text message. On April 5, 2013, unidentified assailants attempted to abduct her son from school. In September 2012, men in Cameroonian security force uniforms kidnapped and raped her niece, in what Ngo Mbe believes was a targeted attack to punish her for her human rights work.
REDHAC is a coalition of human rights defenders in eight Central African countries, headquartered in Cameroon. Its members include people who work on LGBTI rights, but REDHAC’s work is much broader. It also addresses issues such as corruption, security sector reform, women’s rights, and freedom of expression and association.
In all cases, the human rights defenders have filed complaints with the police about the break-ins, but no arrests have been made.
“The police have a responsibility to protect all Cameroonians, and to investigate all crimes,” said Yves Yomb, executive director of Alternatives-Cameroun. “But we are seeing what appears to be selective disinterest in enforcing the law and holding perpetrators accountable. We continue to go to the police and file complaints when these incidents occur, but our trust is waning.”
The attacks took place in a context of homophobic law, policy, and discourse. Cameroon prosecutes more people for consensual same-sex conduct than almost any other country in the world, with dozens of such prosecutions since 2010. In the most recent case, on May 15, 2013, two women were sentenced to nine months in prison by a Yaoundé court for alleged lesbianism. A March 2013 report by Alternatives-Cameroun, ADEFHO, CAMFAIDS, and Human Rights Watch revealed that police and gendarmes torture many of those who are arrested on “homosexuality” charges.
On May 1, 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council evaluated Cameroon’s rights record during the council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. Fifteen member states recommended that Cameroon improve its respect for the human rights of LGBTI people and those who defend them. Several recommendations referred specifically to Cameroon’s obligation to prevent and punish violence against LGBTI rights defenders. Seven countries also recommended improving conditions for rights defenders more generally, including by investigating threats and acts of violence against them.
Cameroon will respond to the recommendations in September 2013. In 2009, it rejected all recommendations related to human rights for LGBTI people, including a recommendation to “establish effective protection of homosexuals against discrimination and attacks.” It accepted a recommendation to improve protections for human rights defenders, but Cameroonian activists say no concrete steps have been taken to that end.
“This troubling spate of attacks against human rights defenders, including people promoting basic rights for sexual and gender minorities, makes it all the more critical for Cameroon to take the UPR recommendations seriously and fulfill its obligation to protect all citizens,” said Neela Ghoshal, senior LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s refusal to accept recommendations to protect LGBTI people, combined with its general disregard for human rights defenders, contributes to a poisonous climate in which both state and non-state actors believe they can harass and threaten LGBTI rights defenders with impunity.”