Michel Togué, a lawyer in the African country of Cameroon, has received death threats for defending lesbians and gays.
This one, like the others, came anonymously “We know that your wife is now shopping in the mall. We know your children are now standing in front of their school. They will die if you don’t stop.”
After the death threats began, he requested help from the Lawyer’s Association in his country, but their president said: “Stop defending the LGBT community and you won’t have problems anymore.”
Togué filed a complaint with the police, but they laughed him away, saying, “Don’t defend those faggots.” He did not receive any protection.
On March 13 Togué, together with his colleague Alice Nkom, received the prestigious Dutch Geuzenpenning Award 2017 in Vlaardingen, the Netherlands for their courageous work. We know just how courageous they have been and how well-deserved this award is because Human Rights Watch has collaborated with these lawyers for years and documented how dangerous it is to be gay or lesbian in Cameroon.
Between 2010 and 2013 we documented 28 arrests for consensual same-sex conduct in Cameroon, and in 2013 an activist, Eric Lembembe, was brutally murdered.
In 2010, we published a report on the situation of lesbians and gays in Cameroon. In Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, I had meetings with the prime minister, with the justice minister, members of parliament and with representatives of the United Nations. During all my meetings I was accompanied by the leaders of two Cameroonian human rights organizations, Alternatives Cameroon and ADEPHO, and the Dutch ambassador.
Our message was the same in all our meetings: Repeal the law that criminalizes homosexual conduct with a maximum prison sentence of five years, and stop arresting lesbians and gays in the meantime.
After all the meetings, we went to an outdoor café close to the Parliament building. We wanted to report back to the members of the two Cameroonian human rights organizations. About 20 young people listened intently to our account of the meetings and were impressed that we had had a conversation about homosexuality with the prime minister and the justice minister. That had never happened before.
I invited Michel Togue to come to the Netherlands to lecture about the plight of LGBT people in Cameroon. He also spoke about the threats against him. The president of the Amsterdam Bar sent a letter of protest to his Cameroonian colleague, but to no avail. Nobody wanted to defend or protect Togue in his own country.
A year after Eric Lembembe was killed, several Cameroonian organizations sharply criticized the dysfunctional police investigation and expressed their fear that there was no political will to shed light on the circumstances of Lembembe’s killing. No one has been arrested and convicted for this murder.
As the death threats against Togue and his family escalated, he was left no other choice but to seek asylum for his wife and kids. The US government during the Obama administration granted them refugee status. His family now lives in the US. So not only gays and lesbians are victims of homophobia.
But in the threatening climate in Cameroon, Togue choose to stay. He knew that the people he represented need lawyers more than ever.
He decided not to close his law office in Cameroon, and he stayed in his country. He always says: “I cannot abandon the lesbian and gay community. They are entitled to be represented in court because human rights are universal and apply to everyone.”
Michel Togué and Alice Nkom are the only two lawyers in Cameroon who have been representing the LGBT community for many years. In such a hostile environment this calls for tremendous courage. In spite of death threats, in spite of bureaucratic obstruction, they keep on doing their work.
They are often the last resort for lesbians and gays in peril. Often their clients are very poor and Togué and Nkom provide them with pro bono legal assistance.
Their perseverance has had impact. The last few years the number of arrests of lesbians and gays in Cameroon has dropped significantly. Both lawyers are very dedicated to their work at great personal expense. That’s why they deserve the Dutch Geuzenpenning Award 2017.
“Is there really hope for us?” one of the young activists asked back in 2010 after hearing about our meetings with Cameroonian officials. In part because of the courage of Togue and Nkom, the answer is “yes.”