Saturday, May 17, 2014

Jailed for Being Gay in Cameroon


Today, the international human rights community reminds the world of the discrimination, violence and bigotry that a particular group is forced to endure because others don’t approve of the way its members dress, how they behave, or whom they love.

Today marks the 10th annual International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia, and as the Director of Global Rights’ lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) programs, I want to share with you a few updates from my recent trip to Cameroon about the challenges the LGBT community there continues to face.

Me and the head of one of our partner organizations
in Cameroon
It’s no secret that many parts of Africa are dangerous for self-identifying—or perceived—gay individuals. In fact, 38 of the 54 African countries have laws against homosexuality, and in four of the 38 countries, homosexuality is an offense punishable by death. (The new draconian, anti-gay legislation recently passed in Nigeria and Uganda only serves to reinforce how dire the situation in Africa is for gay individuals.)

In Cameroon, one of the 38 countries with an anti-gay law, the persecution of LGBT persons takes place mainly through incarceration. More people are prosecuted for same-sex conduct in Cameroon than anywhere else in the world, with dozens having been imprisoned since 2006. As part of the legal proceedings, many men are forced to undergo painful anal examinations that prosecutors believe provide legally sufficient evidence of homosexual activity. Other prisoners are raped and tortured. Those who are not tortured still spend months in detention before they even see a judge, and once they do see a judge, they are usually convicted based on extremely specious and circumstantial evidence. 

I returned from Cameroon a couple weeks ago, and I had the opportunity to meet with leaders of our local partner organizations with whom we are working on a two-year project to strengthen legal protection for LGBT persons. As part of the project, we train LGBT and mainstream rights organizations to better document human rights abuses perpetrated against LGBT persons and to more effectively advocate for LGBT equality at the national level of government. We and our partners also provide free legal aid to Cameroonians accused of violating the anti-homosexuality law. We work with the few local lawyers who have the courage to defend the rights of this heavily stigmatized community—and who put their lives and careers at risk in the process.

During my visit, one such lawyer named Michel gave me encouraging news about our involvement in the case of two young women who were arrested in November 2013 for allegedly engaging in homosexual sex. The judge assigned to the case happened to be on vacation at the time of the arrest, so the women were forced to sit in detention until March 21. That’s 111 days these women spent in jail before they first appeared before a judge.

So where’s the encouraging news? According to Cameroonian law, “whoever has sexual relations with a person of the same sex shall be punished with imprisonment from six months to five years.” These women were released the day I left Cameroon, having been convicted and sentenced to the six months they had already served in pre-trial detention. It’s still a grave miscarriage of justice that these two women were held in detention for 111 days before their trial and that they were eventually convicted without sufficient evidence—not to mention the fact this discriminatory law even exists. Had our partner lawyers not intervened, however, these women wouldn't have had legal representation and thus would have been at greater risk of being sentenced to the full five years that the law allows.

Securing equality for LGBT persons in Africa will be a long and challenging process. (Lest we forget, sodomy was illegal in 14 U.S. states until 2003, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that laws against sodomy violate the right to privacy protected under the Fourth Amendment.) Despite the challenges, we must continue to fight for LGBT rights in Africa—and everywhere in the world—so that LGBT persons enjoy respect and equal protection under the law.

For more information about Global Rights’ LGBT rights program, which also includes projects in Sierra Leone and countries in the Americas such as Brazil and Colombia, please visit our Web site.

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