A visit to prisoners held on ‘suspicion of homosexuality’

In The Nation,  journalist Andy Kopsa reports on her trip last month to Cameroon with an American and African delegation from the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Some excerpts:

The daily tally of prisoners in Yaoundé Central Prison, on the outskirts of Yaoundé, Cameroon, is on a chalkboard the size of a Ping-Pong table affixed to the wall. Today there are 4,113. The prison administrator—we started calling him “the Governor”—tracks the inmates. This one is in the hospital, that one is being transferred, another set free. Murderers, petty thieves, carjackers and burglars are among the 4,113—and at least twenty of the prisoners housed at Yaoundé Central Prison are there just for being gay. …

How to visit the prison
To get inside the prison, we have to jump through a series of hoops; by the time we were sitting in front of the Governor we had been working on the visit for two days. First, we must obtain “tickets” issued by the Ministry of Justice. On the appointed day, we are taken in a taxi to a small grocery store across the road from the prison. There we wait as a one of the members of CAMFAIDS [a local advocacy group working against AIDS and for human rights for LGBT people] and negotiates our bribe price with the guard who will take us to the prison gate.

Prisoners have to pay for their own food, our CAMFAIDS friends tell us, so while we’re in the grocery store, we buy bags of tapioca and cane sugar for the prisoners we are going to meet. …

Four imprisoned without a trial
Finally the prisoners we requested to visit—five men and one woman—are brought in to the Governor’s office. We shake hands and introduce ourselves. I thought we would get to speak with them in private or at least not in the Governor’s office, but it appears not—we have to take the space we are given.

Four of the six inmates we met have been held from a few months to over a year without trial or official charges. They remain in prison under what officials say is “suspicion of homosexuality.” The other two have been tried and found guilty—“condemned,” as they put it. The man is to serve two years; the woman is in for five.

Arrests on ‘suspicion of homosexuality’
The burden of proof to arrest someone on suspicion of homosexuality in Cameroon is low. If a nosy neighbor decides a person is gay—or if they just don’t like them—the neighbor can call the police and the accused is often arrested. Policemen sit out front of clubs rumored to be gay-friendly and arrest men and women as they leave. Parents may report their children, or siblings each other. Not every arrest results in a prison sentence—if the accused can pay a sufficient bribe, they are sometimes set free. Often, they’ll be rearrested and extorted again and again. …

Of the six prisoners, two had families who abandoned them, one had periodic visits from an aunt, one had parents who had passed away and two said nothing. Abandonment, stigmatization and brutal beatings by a LGBT person’s family often precede an imprisonment. And if there is no jail time, the gay person is often cast out by family and community.

* * *
Anti-gay laws have been on the books in Cameroon since the colonial era. After Cameroon was granted its independence from France in 1960, the first real president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, grandfathered an anti-sodomy provision into law in 1972. Cameroon’s current president, Paul Biya, who has been in power for thirty-one years, supports the law; his party holds majorities in parliament.

The brutalization and imprisonment of LGBT persons in Cameroon is rampant in the villages, not just the big cities. A woman who works with a human rights organization in Cameroon told me recently that she gets at least “four calls a week” from LGBT persons in the rural areas, typically reporting familial abuse, abuse by the authorities, jailing and subsequent bribery by officials for their release. …

Two lawyers, each working despite death threats
The legal system is horrible, one human rights worker told me. Men and women accused of homosexual conduct are entitled to a lawyer but few lawyers are willing to be associated with these cases. Michel Togué, the sole lawyer in Yaoundé who defends LGBT people on the basis of human rights, was forced to flee with his family to the US because of death threats. He comes back sporadically; mostly, it is CAMFAIDS that supplies LGBT prisoners with some kind of legal aid. The only other human rights lawyer, Alice Nkom, is based in Douala, a bone jarring three-hour bus ride away. And she is kept busy with death threats against her and cases of her own.

by Colin Stewart
Source – Erasing 76 Crimes