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Dispatches: Eric Ohena Lembembe’s Unfinished Legacy

A year ago, on July 15, 2013, I received devastating news: my friend and collaborator, gay rights activist Eric Ohena Lembembe, had been found dead in his home in Yaounde.

It was a Monday. Eric’s friends had last seen him on Friday. Unable to reach him by phone, they went to his house to look for him. There they found his body, bearing signs of torture.

Eric was among the most outspoken of Cameroon’s burgeoning community of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) activists. He was executive director of the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS) – a human rights organization advocating equality and access to health for LGBTI people.

Shortly before his death, Eric collaborated with Human Rights Watch in researching a report on prosecutions under a Cameroonian law that criminalizes “sexual relations between persons of the same sex.” He had contributed to a news release on the failure to investigate a spate of attacks on rights defenders, blasting the government’s indifference in the face of “anti-gay thugs… targeting those who support equal rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.” In an article  published in a New York newspaper, he described Cameroon’s hostile climate: “It is difficult to spend a day or even an hour in the streets, markets, offices, churches and public taxis of Yaoundé and Douala… without hearing the conversations turn to homosexual ‘deviance.’”

Did Eric fall victim to the hostility that he so vividly described? It is impossible to know, because Cameroonian authorities have never conducted a thorough investigation into his murder. Police made no effort to preserve the crime scene. Shortly after the killing, they briefly detained and intimidated a few of Eric’s gay activist friends. A judge called in Eric’s relatives for questioning, then seemed to let the case drop. An autopsy report, shockingly, described Eric’s death as “natural.”

During the Universal Periodic Review process at the United Nations Human Rights Council, Cameroon’s ambassador outright dismissed the possibility of a homophobic crime, insisting Eric was killed because of his “personal life.” One can hardly imagine a more outrageous insult to Eric’s memory.

No government official has ever publicly condemned the killing. In failing to do so, Cameroon has missed an opportunity to make clear that violence on any grounds – including sexual orientation – is unacceptable.

“Homosexuality” arrests have declined in 2014, but Cameroonians remain behind bars serving sentences or awaiting trial on charges of consensual same-sex conduct. Instances of mob violence against LGBTI people take place with impunity.

In May 2014, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted a strong resolution condemning violence on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, and calling on African countries to “[ensure] proper investigation and diligent prosecution of perpetrators.”

One year after Eric Ohena Lembembe’s death, is Cameroon ready to uphold its international obligations, stop prosecuting for “homosexuality,” and start prosecuting for homophobic violence? 

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