The government of Cameroon should immediately take action against a series of death threats made over the last four months to two lawyers who represent clients accused of homosexual conduct, Human Rights Watch said today in an open letter to President Paul Biya.
Alice Nkom and Michel Togué, Cameroonian human rights lawyers, began receiving death threats in October 2012, in the form of emails and text messages, assailing the lawyers for their work defending clients charged with homosexuality. Consensual same-sex conduct is criminalized under the Cameroonian penal code's article 347 bis, and at least 28 people have been prosecuted under the law since 2010. Nkom and Togué are among the only lawyers courageous enough to take up these cases in a country where homophobia is pervasive.
"Since October, the Cameroonian authorities have been aware of death threats against the two lawyers, and they apparently have done absolutely nothing in response," said Neela Ghoshal, researcher in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. "The failure to investigate and publicly condemn the threats sends the wrong signal to those responsible for these ugly messages."
The government's apparent inaction in response to the serious threats against Nkom and Togué, which threaten violence against the lawyers themselves, their children, and their clients, is of grave concern, Human Rights Watch said. President Biya should publicly speak out against these death threats, and make clear that threats of violence against alleged gays and lesbians and the lawyers that represent them are reprehensible and will not be tolerated.
The threats began when appeals filed by the lawyers in two "homosexuality" cases attracted national and international attention. Several days after receiving the threats in October, both Nkom and Togué submitted complaints to law enforcement agencies. The cases involved Roger Jean-Claude Mbede, whose conviction was upheld by an appeals court in December, and Franky Djome and Jonas Singa Kimié, whose conviction was overturned in January 2013.
To the lawyers' knowledge, no action was taken in response to their complaints, they told Human Rights Watch. Police told Togué that if he did not wish to receive death threats, he should stop representing people charged with homosexuality.
Since October, the threats have continued and their gravity has increased. A message received by Togué in December warned him to stop "defending your faggot ideas," or risk being "at the bedside of one of your dying children." A message to Nkom the same month, threatening her clients, warned, "It only remains [to find] their houses... the neighborhoods are already in our hands."
Article 7 of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights, which is integrated into the Cameroonian constitution under article 45, guarantees to anyone accused of a crime "the right to defense, including the right to be defended by counsel of his choice." The death threats received by the lawyers, coupled with the authorities' inaction, amount to a threat to this basic right.
"President Biya recently stated that 'minds are changing' in Cameroon regarding homosexuality, but the government should take the lead by sending consistent messages that homophobic threats and violence are reprehensible," Ghoshal said. "Sitting back and doing nothing while human rights defenders are literally putting their lives on the line to uphold the right to defense is unacceptable."