Thursday, January 10, 2013

Cameroon: Imprisonment for "looking gay" and drinking Baileys mocks rule of law

Two men have been acquitted by an appeal court in Cameroon after spending one year in prison because "... the way they dressed, the way they spoke and the fact that they drank Baileys Irish Cream proved they were gay." 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the African Charter on Human and People's Rights (ACHPR) are incorporated into the constitution of Cameroon and it is stated in the preamble that international law takes precedence over national laws. Looking at the constitution, it is easy to think that Cameroon is a haven where international human rights standards and fundamental freedoms are respected. But in reality, the situation on the ground is dire. Human rights and fundamental freedoms are limited - so limited that people are arrested and imprisoned for "looking gay."

Two Cameroonian men, Jonas Kimie and Franky Ndome, jailed for wearing women's clothes were recently acquitted by an appeal court in Yaounde, Cameroon. The men were reportedly arrested outside a nightclub in Yaounde in July 2011 and spent more than one year in jail for looking gay. Their lawyer reportedly said the conviction was based on stereotypes and that the judge who sentenced them said the way they dressed, the way they spoke and the fact that they drank Bailey's Irish Cream proved they were gay. [Source]

According to Amnesty International, the acquittal exposes systematic discrimination against homosexuals in Cameroon - where homosexuality is outlawed.

The law and wrong interpretation

Section 347 bis of the Cameroon penal code sanctions homosexuality with up to 5 years imprisonment and/or a fine. The law criminalizes "sexual relations with a person of the same sex." [Source] Many people are arrested and prosecuted and condemned under the law - without evidence of sexual relations.

In March 2011, Roger Jean Claude Mbede was arrested based on a text message and sentenced to three years in prison. He was provisionally released in July 2012, but unlike in the case of Jonas Kimie and Franky Ndome, an appeal court upheld his three-year sentence in December 2012.

Disregard for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cameroon is not limited to the persecution of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersexual (LGBTI) people. Perceived LGBTI people are also harassed and imprisoned due to stereotypes and wrong interpretation of Cameroon's controversial homosexuality law. Security forces routinely crack down on peaceful demonstrations and commit serious human rights violations, including unlawful killings; freedom of expression is gagged with several journalists and government critics arrested and detained; freedom of association and assembly are infringed, and political and human rights groups are denied the right to organize activities. Political activists are routinely arrested and detained. [Source]

Culture of disregard for human rights

It is worth mentioning that there is a culture of disregard for human rights in Cameroon. Many ordinary people in the country support anti-gay laws, discrimination and prejudice against LGBTI people. Other abhorrent rights violations such as mob justice enjoy widespread support. Hence not only the state is guilty of injustice and discrimination.

Government authorities, lawmakers, civil society groups, security forces, lawyers, judges, magistrates and ordinary people are in need of human rights education. Campaigns and petitions by rights groups may free prisoners of conscience like Jean-Claude Mbede and other victims of rights violations, but won't stop the persecution and harassment of people on grounds of sexual orientation. A long term solution lies in education and inculcation of a culture of mutual respect for human rights. This can be achieved through seminars and human rights education in schools and government institutions.

The acquittal of Jonas Kimie and Franky Ndome is a welcomed move in the right direction but a lot more needs to be done to guarantee the rights of LGBTI people in Cameroon. The reasoning behind the initial imprisonment of the two men is laughable, makes a mockery of the rule of law and threatens fundamental freedoms in Cameroon. No one should be imprisoned for dressing differently, speaking differently or for drinking Baileys Irish Cream.

*Photo: Global-customer.

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