For the past decade, policemen and judges have relied on the Cameroonian penal code to arrest suspected homosexuals. However, the apprehensions are often made on pure speculation. Human rights activists are appalled.
On 19 November 2011, Paul Ewang was arrested by the police and kept in custody for two days.
"I was in a bar with a friend who is quite effeminate. When we left, the barman started swearing at us and poking us with an iron rod," recalls the 30 year old. "He hit me with the rod, shouting: 'Gays, it's a gay couple.' People came out and started assaulting us. They were gathering old tyres to burn us alive when the police arrived and took us to the station."
"We were kept in custody on charges of homosexuality. I fainted at the end of the second day, out of exhaustion and hunger, and was taken to hospital," says Ewang. He is free now, but only because he managed to escape from hospital.
No plaintiff, no crime, no witness
Alice Nkom, a Cameroonian lawyer renowned for her commitment to gay and lesbian rights, is outraged. "They were not supposed to stay in police custody, because they were not caught committing the alleged crime," she says in reference to those arrested. "Being effeminate does not necessarily mean being guilty of homosexuality. It was an arbitrary detention, as it is in most such cases."
In Cameroon, arbitrary arrests and detention are not uncommon. The situation clearly frustrates Nkom. "There is a complete disregard for the penal code. In fact, in many cases, there is no plaintiff, no crime and no witness," she says.
'Marc', who serves as manager for the Centre Region branch of PAEMH, an organisation providing guidance to homosexual minorities, recalls his own similar experience. Seven years ago, he was arrested and, without any incriminating evidence, held for over 12 months in the Central Prison of Yaoundé. Due to his line of work, Marc asked would rather his surname not be used.
That day in May 2005, Marc was having a drink at a bar in Yaoundé when three policemen raided the place. Marc recounts the story: "They said they were looking for a man whose face they didn't know, but who regularly frequented the bar. Therefore, they were going to take all forty of us to the station for identification."
The police officers said the homosexuality charges were simply based on information that the bar was frequented by gays. "On June first , all eleven of us appeared before a judge who immediately signed a committal order. That is how we ended up in prison," says Marc.
Lack of evidence
Aged between 17 and 25, all the arrested were ultimately released. That was one year later, thanks to the help of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. The case received a lot attention in the Cameroonian media. Human rights activists were outraged by the arrests made on speculation.
The prosecution only started looking for 'evidence' of homosexuality three months after their incarceration. They subjected the accused to rectal examinations in a desperate attempt to find 'traces of sodomy'.
"Some bribed their way out," Marc says, referring to those who left the police station. "But I refused to do so because I hadn't done anything wrong. Ten other people also refused to 'negotiate', as we say in Cameroon, and the policemen kept us in custody on charges of homosexuality."