Human Rights Watch said advocates found Eric Ohena Lembembe’s body on his bed in his home in Yaoundé, the country’s capital, after they were unable to reach him for two days.
One of Lembembe’s friends told Human Rights Watch that his neck and feet “appeared to be broken.” An iron was also reportedly used to burn Lembembe’s face, hands and feet.
Lembembe, who was the executive director of the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS, worked with Human Rights Watch and two other LGBT advocacy groups in the country — Alternatives-Cameroun and the Association for the Defense of Homosexuals — to document anti-gay persecution in the nation. He also contributed to Erasing 76 Crimes, a blog that chronicles efforts to report on efforts to decriminalize homosexuality around the world.
“Eric was an inspiring activist whose work was deeply appreciated by human rights activists in Cameroon and around the world,” Neela Ghoshal, a researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program, said. “Advocating for equal rights in Cameroon, where LGBTI people face severe discrimination and violence, takes tremendous courage. Eric’s activism paved the way for a society based on equality and nondiscrimination.”
State Department spokesperson Marie Harf also condemned Lembembe’s murder.
“We condemn this terrible act in the strongest terms and urge the Cameroonian authorities to thoroughly and promptly investigate and prosecute those responsible for his death,” she said in a statement issued late on Tuesday.
Lembembe’s death comes against the backdrop of ongoing anti-gay persecution and violence in the country.
Cameroonian authorities since 2010 have prosecuted more than 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.
Police in Yaoundé in March 2011 arrested Jean-Claude Roger Mbede after sending a flirtatious text message to another man. Authorities later that year arrested Jonas Kimie and Franky Ndome outside a nightclub in the Cameroonian capital and charged them under the country’s anti-homosexuality law.
A judge sentenced Kimie and Ndome to five years in prison, but an appellate court in January released them. The Washington Blade’s attempts to interview the men earlier this year were unsuccessful because they had gone into hiding.
Human Rights Watch said a group of unidentified assailants torched Alternatives-Cameroun’s headquarters in the city of Douala on June 26. The organization noted burglars took legal files and a laptop from the Yaoundé office of Michel Togué, a lawyer who represents gay men charged under the country’s anti-homosexuality law, when they broke into it 10 days earlier.
Togué said during a forum at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights in D.C. in February that he moved his family to Maryland because of death threats he and his colleagues received.
“Gay people are not seeking everyone to approve of their behavior,” he said. “They are seeking freedom.”
The State Department and Amnesty International are among the government agencies and human rights organizations that have criticized Cameroon’s LGBT rights record in recent years.
President Paul Biya told journalists in January after a meeting with French President François Hollande that attitudes towards gay Cameroonians are changing.
Ghoshal and other human rights advocates continue to urge Cameroonian authorities to publicly condemn Lembembe’s murder and arrest those responsible for his death.
“We don’t know who killed Eric Lembembe, or why he was killed, but one thing is clear: the Cameroonian authorities’ utter failure to stem homophobic violence sends the message that these attacks can be carried out with impunity,” Ghoshal said. “The police should not rest until the perpetrators of this horrific crime are brought to justice. President Biya should break his silence on the wave of homophobic violence in Cameroon and publicly condemn this brutal attack.”