Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Lawyer Who Defends Convicted Homosexuals in Cameroon

Michel Togué is one of the few lawyers in Cameroon with the courage and conviction to defend Cameroonians charged with violating the country's anti-homosexuality law.

It is illegal in Cameroon to engage in same-sex conduct, with jail sentences lasting up to five years. In addition, Cameroonian society is hostile toward the country's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community and to the few who defend their rights. Mr. Togué's office has been broken into and ransacked. He has received numerous death threats. He has even had to relocate his family to the United States to ensure their safety.

So why has Mr. Togué, himself a heterosexual man with a wife and children, chosen to put at risk his life and the lives of his family to defend LGBT Cameroonians? To Mr. Togué, the answer is simple: LGBT rights are human rights.

“It is for human rights," he said last week in an interview with Global Rights. "Until the law that punishes homosexuality will be changed in Cameroon, I will fight; I will struggle.”

Last Thursday, Mr. Togué spoke at Global Rights’ office in Washington about the challenges he faces when defending Cameroonians who have been convicted under the country’s anti-homosexuality law. About 35 people attended the talk, including representatives from the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and human rights organizations.

Mr. Togué (center left with the suit) requested the more than 30 attendees at last Thursday's event to get in a picture with him. The attendees obliged.

More people in Cameroon are prosecuted for homosexual conduct than in any other country in the world. In addition to time in prison, gay Cameroonians face a life of “perpetual danger,” forced to hide their sexual identities for fear of reprisals, Mr. Togué said. The jail sentence under the anti-homosexuality law is anywhere from six months to five years with a fine of $40 to $400.

The law explicitly defines the crime as having “sexual relations with a person of the same sex,” but because it is nearly impossible to provide credible evidence of same-sex conduct, Cameroonians are often convicted for merely dressing or acting in a way that is perceived as homosexual. For example, Mr. Togué said that a judge in 2011 convicted two transgender women of being gay because they were spotted wearing women’s clothing and drinking a liqueur that the judge deemed feminine. Roger Mbede, who made headlines in early January when he died after being in jail for three years, was originally sentenced for sending an amorous text message to another man.

A Cameroonian newspaper that depicts the fight for LGBT equality as a Western plot. Another newspapers pits LGBT "lobbies" against Cameroon, featuring an editorial that calls homosexuality a "crime against humanity."

The arbitrary application of the law makes it extremely difficult for Mr. Togué to win cases for his clients. He has only won a handful of the more than 20 cases he has defended that involved the alleged violation of Cameroon’s anti-homosexuality law.

“Judges in Cameroon, I’m not sure that they’re judging according to the law,” Mr. Togué said in the interview. “Even if they are judges, they share the same homophobia as the society.”

Mr. Togué, however, remains optimistic about the future for Cameroon’s LGBT community. He said that society is at least willing to publicly discuss homosexuality and the discrimination against the LGBT community, something that was considered taboo only a few years ago.

To assist Mr. Togué in his quest for justice, Global Rights is currently partnering with him and the Cameroonian organization for which he works, the Association for the Defense of Homosexuals (ADEFHO), to provide legal assistance to persons detained and convicted under the anti-homosexuality law. We are also helping to promote a grassroots campaign to create a more favorable climate in Cameroonian society for the recognition of and respect for LGBT persons. In addition, Global Rights will conduct security training for LGBT activists and their supporters, many of whom suffer physical attacks—and in one case, alleged murder—for their LGBT advocacy. The two-year program will also empower more than 10 LGBT and mainstream organizations to monitor and document human rights abuses and how to more effectively advocate for the rights of LGBT people in Cameroon. To learn more about this program, please visit our Web site.

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