Nairobi — A Cameroonian appeals court decision on December 17, 2012, upholding a criminal conviction for homosexuality demonstrates that basic human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people are under assault in Cameroon, Human Rights Watch said today. The court upheld the conviction and three-year prison sentence for Roger Jean-Claude Mbede, a university student charged with homosexuality, and ordered his arrest.
Cameroon should declare a moratorium on arrests and convictions under article 347 bis of the Cameroonian penal code, which criminalizes "sexual relations with a person of the same sex," Human Rights Watch said. The article violates international law, including the right to privacy.
"The appeals court decision against Roger Mbede is a blow to key human rights principles, including the right to privacy, the right to equality, and the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment," said Neela Ghoshal, researcher in the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch. "The decision sends a warning to LGBT Cameroonians that they risk beatings, arrests, and imprisonment simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity."
Mbede, a philosophy student in Yaoundé, was arrested and convicted of homosexuality in March 2011 after sending another man a text message reading, "I've fallen in love with you." Gendarmes, tipped off by the man who received the message, detained him. Mbede told Human Rights Watch that they beat him to extract confessions of prior same-sex relationships. A trial court sentenced him to three years in prison on the basis of the text message and those confessions. After over a year in prison, Mbede was released on bail in July while his appeal was in process. The appeals court's decision was issued after repeated delays.
Mbede's case illustrates the numerous ways in which Cameroon's anti-homosexuality law lends itself to due process violations and other human rights abuses against alleged LGBT people, Human Rights Watch said. The gendarmerie encouraged the man to whom Mbede had sent three romantic text messages to invite Mbede to his home. They arrested Mbede when he arrived there, though visiting the acquaintance's home was no crime and, in violation of Cameroonian law, the gendarmes had no warrant. They then claimed Mbede had been caught in the act of "attempted homosexuality." He was held in gendarmerie custody beyond the legal limit of 48 hours.
After he refused to respond to interrogations, he said, he was beaten. He told Human Rights Watch: "The interrogator... called his friend, a gendarme, to beat me. The gendarme punched me in the mouth. He kept hitting me, tore my shirt. They threw away my shoes. When I went to the [prosecutor's office], I was barefoot, like a bandit."
Under duress, Mbede says, he told gendarmes he had had three previous relationships with men, whom he was forced to name. One of the men was summoned and interrogated. The man was released after investigators concluded that he had not had sex with Mbede. However, Mbede's alleged relationship with the man still formed part of the charges.
Mbede had no legal representation at his trial, and told Human Rights Watch that the judge shouted at him and insulted him when he tried to approach the bar to respond to the allegations against him. He was represented by a lawyer, Michel Togue, in his appeal hearing.
Togue told Human Rights Watch that the appeals court has not yet provided an explanation for its decision.
The chief of Cameroon's police force told Human Rights Watch that article 347 bis is only intended to apply to those who engage in same-sex conduct publicly. But there was no evidence that the accused engaged in sexual intercourse in public in any of the recent cases that resulted in convictions.
Mbede is one of several dozen people who have been prosecuted for homosexuality in Cameroon in the last several years, beginning with a mass arrest of alleged gays at a bar in Yaoundé in 2005. Other cases are equally illustrative of human rights violations. Two men in Yaoundé were convicted of homosexuality in 2011 in a case in which the only evidence presented was that gendarmes had found a sack of condoms and lubricant in their house.
In Kribi in 2010, when intelligence officials heard that a village chief had propositioned a man, in the absence of any complaint or evidence that any crime had been committed, they set up the chief for arrest. The intelligence office's own report, seen by Human Rights Watch, says that intelligence officials convinced the man to make a date with the chief on a secluded beach. When the chief undressed at the other man's request, intelligence officials jumped out of hiding, arrested him, took pictures, and made him walk to the intelligence office stark naked. He was subsequently convicted.
In Douala in 2010, three men were arrested in a hotel lobby and charged with homosexuality because two of them had shared a room at the hotel. The case proceeded to trial, but the men fled the country before a verdict was issued.
Togue and another prominent lawyer who has defended people accused of homosexuality, Alice Nkom, have recently received a series of death threats by email and SMS. Both have filed complaints with police and prosecutors, but no one has been apprehended in relation to the threats.
Cameroon's article 347 bis violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects the right to privacy and freedom from discrimination. Human rights organizations in Cameroon, such as Alternatives-Cameroun, have petitioned parliament to decriminalize consensual same-sex conduct, but parliament has not responded.
With Cameroon's Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council in Geneva approaching in April 2013, supporters of human rights for LGBT people in Cameroon have recently begun calling for, at minimum, a moratorium on arrests under article 347 bis.
"When an appeals court can uphold a three-year prison sentence for the sole reason that someone has sent a message of love to someone of the same sex, there is clearly a need to revisit the law," Ghoshal said. "President Paul Biya should call for a moratorium on arrests for consensual same-sex conduct, and Cameroon should consider avenues toward decriminalization."