A lawyer who represents LGBT Cameroonians on Thursday urged his African country’s government to stop the persecution of gay men and lesbians.
“Gay people are not seeking everyone to approve of their behavior,” Michel Togué said during a roundtable at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights in Northwest D.C. “They are seeking freedom.”
Authorities since 2010 have prosecuted nearly 30 people under the section of the country’s penal code that imposes a sentence of up to five years in prison and a roughly $400 fine against anyone convicted of same-sex sexual activity. These include Jean-Claude Roger Mbede, whom police in the Cameroonian capital of Yaoundé arrested in March 2011 after he sent a flirtatious text message to another man.
Police in July 2011 arrested Jonas Kimie and Franky Ndome outside a Yaoundé nightclub and charged them under Cameroon’s anti-homosexuality law.
A judge referenced the couple’s clothes and their “feminine” speech before sentencing them to five years in prison. Kimie and Ndome last month went into hiding after an appellate court released them. (The Washington Blade’s attempts to interview them were unsuccessful.)
Togué, who represents Mbede alongside fellow Cameroonian lawyer Alice Nkom, said those charged under the anti-homosexuality law routinely face human rights abuses while in custody.
He said a doctor asked Mbede to bend over during an examination at a local hospital to prove whether he is gay.
Togué further alleged authorities also beat Mbede, who received a three year prison sentence and was re-sentenced in December after he unsuccessfully appealed his original conviction, while in custody. He said they also distributed naked pictures of Mbede they took inside the police station.
“There’s no dignity there,” Togué said. “There’s no respect or dignity of humanity.”
All Out, Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department are among the groups and governmental agencies that have criticized Cameroon’s LGBT rights record in recent years.
President Paul Biya told journalists last month after meeting with French President François Hollande that attitudes towards gay Cameroonians are changing.
“Cameroon is part of a global community and the world has become a global village,” Togué, who moved his family to Silver Spring because of the death threats he said he and his colleagues continue to receive, said. “It is not in the interests of my beloved country to not live in isolation.”
Togué’s D.C. appearance coincided with the possibly imminent debate in the Ugandan Parliament on the so-called “Kill the Gays” bill that would impose the death penalty upon anyone convicted of repeated same-sex sexual acts. It also took place less than a month after President Obama mentioned gay men and lesbians, marriage rights for same-sex couples and the Stonewall riots in his second inaugural address.
Lawmakers in France, which partially colonized Cameroon until it gained independence in the early 1960s, earlier this month approved a bill that would allow gays and lesbians to marry and adopt children.
“It can have an impact [in] my country and of the LGBT issues in Cameroon,” Togué told the Blade after the roundtable. “My president is really aware of what international opinion thinks about what he is doing.”
He returned to Cameroon on Sunday.