(Nairobi) – Cameroonian security forces have arbitrarily arrested, beaten, or threatened at least 24 people, including a 17-year-old boy, for alleged consensual same-sex conduct or gender nonconformity, since February 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. At least one of them was forced to undergo an HIV test and anal examination.
Based on Human Rights Watch’s monitoring and discussions with Cameroonian nongovernmental organizations, the recent accounts of abuse documented here seem to be part of an overall uptick in police action against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Cameroon. Sexual relations between people of the same sex are criminalized in Cameroon and punished with up to five years in prison.
“These recent arrests and abuses raise serious concerns about a new upsurge in anti-LGBT persecution in Cameroon,” said Neela Ghoshal, associate LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The law criminalizing same-sex conduct puts LGBT people at a heightened risk of being mistreated, tortured, and assaulted without any consequences for the abusers.”
Between February 17 and April 8, Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone 18 people, including 5 who had been detained, 3 lawyers, and 10 members of Cameroonian LGBT nongovernmental organizations. Human Rights Watch also reviewed reports by Cameroonian and international LGBT organizations, court documents, police reports, and medical records.
Human Rights Watch shared its findings with the justice minister, Laurent Esso; the state secretary at the Defense Ministry in charge of the national gendarmerie, Yves Landry Etoga; and the delegate general for national security, Martin Mbarga Nguele, in a March 25 letter, requesting answers to specific questions. Cameroonian officials have yet to respond.
On February 24, police officers raided the office of Colibri, an organization that provides HIV prevention and treatment services, in Bafoussam, West Region, and arrested 13 people on homosexuality charges, including 7 Colibri staff. The police released all 13 people on February 26 and 27. Three of those arrested said that police beat at least three Colibri staff members at the police station and that the police threatened and verbally assaulted all those arrested. They also said that the police interrogated them without the presence of a lawyer and forced them to sign statements they were not allowed to read.
One of them, a 22-year-old transgender woman, said: “Police told us we are devils, not humans, not normal. They beat a trans woman in the face, slapped her twice in front of me.”
Police also forced one of the 13 arrested, a 26-year-old transgender woman, to undergo an HIV test and anal examination at a health center in Bafoussam on February 25. She told Human Rights Watch: “The doctor was embarrassed but said he had to do the examination because the prosecutor needed it. He carried out the examination. I had to bend over. The doctor wore gloves and put in his finger. It was the most humiliating thing I’ve ever experienced.”
What this transgender woman experienced is not an isolated case. Human Rights Watch has previously documented that prosecutors in Cameroon have introduced medical reports based on forced anal exams into court, contributing to convictions of individuals charged with consensual homosexual conduct.
Human Rights Watch documented two additional arrests in 2021 and one mass arrest in 2020. In Bertoua, on February 14, gendarmes arrested 12 youth, including at least 1 teenager, on homosexuality charges and subjected them to ill-treatment before releasing them the same day. On February 8, gendarmes arbitrarily arrested two transgender women in Douala, targeting them in the street on the basis of their gender expression. Prosecutors charged them with homosexual conduct, lack of identity cards, and public indecency.
“It is not illegal to be homosexual or transgender,” said Cameroonian lawyer Alice Nkom. “According to Cameroonian law, it is the act which is the crime. So, this is a blatant human rights violation. They should be released immediately.”
In May 2020, police arrested 53 people, most of them LGBT, at a gathering hosted by an HIV organization in a hotel in Bafoussam and charged them with “homosexuality” related offenses. At least 6, including 3 teenagers ages 15 to 17, were subjected to forced anal examinations and HIV tests.
The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights guarantees the right to equal protection before the law and nondiscrimination. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the body charged with monitoring states parties’ compliance with the African Charter, has said that equal protection extends to sexual orientation. It has also stated that the principle of nondiscrimination, including on the grounds of sexual orientation, is the foundation for the enjoyment of all human rights. The commission has called for African governments to end all forms of violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and to bring the abusers to justice.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Cameroon is a state party, provides for equal protection, nondiscrimination, and the right to privacy. On this basis, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has ruled that the criminalization of consensual same-sex conduct between adults violates the ICCPR.
Forced anal exams constitute a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment that can, in some cases, rise to the level of torture. In November 2013, Dr. Guy Sandjon, president of the National Medical Council of Cameroon, told Human Rights Watch that Cameroonian doctors should not conduct the exams, as they violate medical ethics, and that the authorities should not order them. Involuntary HIV and sexually transmitted infection tests constitute a violation of the right to bodily integrity and privacy, protected under the ICCPR, and the right to health under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
“The Cameroonian government has an obligation to uphold the rights of everyone in Cameroon, regardless of their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity,” Ghoshal said. “The authorities should immediately end arbitrary arrests on the basis of sexual identity and forced anal examinations and should take swift steps to repeal the law criminalizing consensual same-sex relations.”
For more details about the recent human rights abuses against LGBT people and recommendations for Cameroonian authorities, please see below.
Bafoussam, West Region, May 2020
On May 16, 2020, police arrested 53 people, the majority of whom were LGBT, including at least 6 teenagers ages 15 to 17, in a hotel in Bafoussam during a gathering organized by the HIV association, Colibri. They were charged with “homosexuality,” pimping, and complicity in pimping, and were held at the judicial police station. Ten were released on May 17, and the rest on May 21.
Two of those arrested and the lawyer who represented them said that the police beat, humiliated, and threatened many of those arrested, held all of them in a tiny cell, and deprived some of the HIV treatment they needed. One of the men arrested said:
They [police officers] stormed the hotel; they took everyone by force. They forced some of us to undress. They beat a trans woman in front of me, they slapped her twice in the face and ordered her to take off her clothes in front of everyone. They also seized medicine, including antiretrovirals, thermometers, and HIV tests. Then they brought us to the police station and threw us in a very small cell where we could barely breathe. Men, women, children, everyone in the same cell. Police also deprived those who were HIV positive of their life-saving treatment and refused to let any medicine into the cell. It was tough. One year on, they are yet to give us back what they took, like medicine and HIV kits. Also, I am yet to recover from the trauma this incident has caused me.
One of those arrested, a transgender woman, said that on May 18, police forced her to undergo an HIV test and anal examination at the regional hospital in Bafoussam without her consent. She said 5 other LGBT people, including 3 of the teenagers, experienced the same treatment. She said:
The doctor did not want to do the exams because he said he needed my consent, but the police officer insisted and said they needed the exams to provide proof of our sexual orientation for the prosecution. So, the doctor went ahead. I had to bend. I was afraid. I was in shock. I could not believe that a medical professional, who is supposed to be bound by the highest ethical standards, would do this to me. It is such an intrusive, invasive practice.
Human Rights Watch reviewed medical records indicating that the anal examinations and HIV tests were carried out by a doctor at the orders of the regional commissioner of the judicial police. The records confirm that the six people were subjected to digital penetration, a form of sexual assault when conducted by force without consent.
Bertoua, East Region, February 2021
On February 14, gendarmes arrested 12 youth, including a 17-year-old boy, in a restaurant in Bertoua on homosexuality-related charges. Human Rights Watch spoke to a 21-year-old woman, who was among those arrested, who said that gendarmes beat, threatened, and verbally assaulted her and the others at the gendarmerie station:
They ordered us to lay on the ground on our stomachs with our legs bent. A gendarme would put a foot on your back so that you could not move, while another gendarme would hit you on the soles of your feet. That’s how I was beaten up. Everyone was beaten like that. Gendarmes wanted us to confess we were homosexuals. They insulted and threatened us. They said: “You are those destroying our country, we should kill you.”
All of those arrested were released the same day without charge.
A woman working for a local human rights group that provided legal and other assistance to those arrested told Human Rights Watch that some of the youth needed medical care upon their release because of the beatings.
Douala, Littoral Region, February 2021
Gendarmes arrested Njeuken Loic (known as “Shakiro”) and Mouthe Roland (known as “Patricia”), two transgender women, in Douala on February 8.
They were charged with homosexuality-related offenses, lack of identity cards, and public indecency, and taken to a gendarmerie brigade in Nkoulouloun neighborhood, where they spent the night. The next day, a court ordered them to be placed in pretrial detention. They were transferred the following day to the New Bell prison in Douala, where they remain. Their trial is ongoing before the Bonajo Court of First Instance in Douala.
Two of their lawyers and three LGBT rights activists who visited them in prison said that gendarmes interrogated Shakiro and Patricia at the gendarmerie brigade without the presence of their lawyers, forced them to sign statements they were not allowed to read, beat them, and threatened them. A member of a Cameroonian LGBT organization based in Douala said:
I visited Shakiro and Patricia several times in prison. They told me that they were beaten and threatened with death at the gendarmerie station. They said gendarmes twisted their hands behind their backs for almost 30 minutes and hit them with their boots, including on their backs. Gendarmes accused them of being homosexuals and called them “dirty faggots.”
LGBT rights activists and lawyers also said that detainees and prison guards at New Bell prison beat, threatened, and verbally assaulted Shakiro and Patricia repeatedly. An LGBT activist who visited them in prison said:
Their detention conditions are extremely poor. They are constantly insulted by prison guards and other inmates because of their sexual orientation. They were chained up upon arrival at New Bell prison and beaten by prison guards. They are being held with many men in small cells. Shakiro is in a cell with about 70 men, while Patricia in another cell with about 50 men. Holding them with men is problematic, they would prefer to stay with women. They told me inmates always verbally assault them, saying horrible things like they are not supposed to exist.
On March 24, the Bonajo Court of First Instance in Douala denied their bail application, claiming that section 301 of the Cameroonian criminal procedure code, on which Shakiro and Patricia’s lawyers have based their defense, is not applicable. Section 301 states that, “Where a case is not ready for hearing, the court shall adjourn it to its very next sitting and may order the release of the accused on bail, with or without sureties.”
The next hearing in their case is scheduled for April 26.
Human Rights Watch urges Cameroon’s authorities to take the following steps:
· The delegate general for national security and the secretary of state for defense in charge of the gendarmerie should issue written orders to all police and gendarmes to immediately stop arbitrarily arresting people based on their perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender nonconformity, or alleged consensual same-sex conduct.
· The judiciary should immediately release and dismiss charges against Shakiro and Patricia and others charged on the basis of perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender nonconformity, or alleged consensual same-sex conduct.
· Parliament should initiate a repeal of article 347 bis of the Cameroonian Penal code, which punishes consensual same-sex sexual relations with up to five years in prison.
· The justice minister should make absolutely clear, in particular to all law enforcement, prosecuting and judicial authorities, that Cameroonian law does not make it a crime or offense to be a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person, or to dress in a way that is perceived as gender nonconforming, and that any official purporting to exercise authority to detain, charge, or prosecute an LGBT person on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender nonconformity, or threatening to do so, is acting without a lawful basis and shall be held to account for abuse of power.
· The National Human Rights Commission should investigate allegations of ill-treatment of detainees on the grounds of real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.