Controversy surrounding the death of LGBT activist Eric Ohena Lembembe; Cameroon blames the victims and continues persecution

September 25, 2013

On 23 September Amy Bergquist of the Advocates for Human Rights writes in her blog: The International Justice Program doesn’t get to travel to Geneva very often, but thanks to the United Nations’ live webcasts, we can usually see and hear all the U.N.’s human rights action as it happens. On Friday morning, I was eager to watch the U.N. Human Rights Council’s consideration of the Universal Periodic Review of Cameroon. I was especially moved when one of our colleagues from the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS) took the floor to speak on behalf of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association and recounted his July 15 discovery of his tortured and murdered colleague, Eric Ohena Lembembe, who, before his death, was CAMFAIDS’ executive director”, which experienced in May and June a rash of break-ins and even arson at the offices of attorneys and organizations that work on behalf of LGBTI people in Cameroon while HRDs have faced escalating anonymous threats.

As recently as 1 July, Eric Ohena Lembembe, had spoken out about the increasingly dangerous situation facing human rights defenders in Cameroon working on behalf of LGBTI people. “There is no doubt: Anti-gay thugs are targeting those who support equal rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” he said. “Unfortunately, a climate of hatred and bigotry in Cameroon, which extends to high levels in government, reassures homophobes that they can get away with these crimes.

Back in May many countries had recommended that Cameroon repeal Article 347 bis, the law that subjects a person engaged in sexual conduct with someone of the same sex to up to five years in prison. Only on September 20, more than four and a half months later, did the Government of Cameroon state whether it accepts or rejects those recommendations. In the end, it accepted only one recommendation that mentioned homosexuality.

At the Human Rights Council on Friday, one of his colleagues described what happened to Eric just two weeks after he had spoken out about the increased dangers human rights activists in Cameroon were facing:

“On July 15 at 5:45pm in Yaounde, I discovered the dead body of my colleague, our colleague, with the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS, CAMFAIDS. He was a friend and activist for health; a human rights defender for LGBTI persons, a journalist and a writer. His name was Eric Ohena Lembembe. He was locked in his room after having been tortured and killed. This crime took place after a series of attacks, threats, and arrests made against members of the LGBTI community and their defenders. Eric Ohena Lembembe denounced in his articles and publications these attacks and the instigators of them. He was harassed verbally on the telephone, by email and by SMS. He was even arrested and placed in detention. But he didn’t take these threats into account, and it cost him his life.”

The government’s investigation into Eric’s death has been lackluster. Authorities have not released the results of the coroner’s autopsy report. The police have made no arrests. Instead, police detained several of Eric’s colleagues for three days interrogate them about their own sexual practices. And government officials have lashed out at Cameroonian human rights defenders for stirring up matters in the western media. A Commissioner on Cameroon’s National Commission for Human Rights and Freedoms [!] on September 4 issued a warning to human rights defenders who work on LGBTI issues: “Cameroonians who denigrate their country abroad in international bodies and then complain that they are insecure when they return to their home country — they themselves are responsible for what happens. They know they will be put down.”

In response to NGO statements, Cameroon’s ambassador to the U.N. tried to sully Eric’s memory:

If you look at statistics, well, we speak about one person who allegedly was a victim of violations because of his homosexuality. But there’s no proof that this gentleman was a victim because of his sexual orientation. He is a man like any other. He might have committed crimes and he was the victim of a settlement of scores which was all too quickly attributed to the Cameroon government…….So I reject this alleged case of this young man who allegedly was found dead as a result of his homosexuality. Distinguished Ambassadors, ladies and gentlemen, these are just things that have been made up. Look at the details of this person’s life and you will understand why he died.”

On 25 September 2013 Human Rights Watch takes this up by stating: “The comments by the official state representative toward the late Eric Lembembe, who is no longer with us to defend himself against such vitriol, represent a new low by Cameroon’s government. Cameroon should be focused on improving its human rights record before the UN, instead of blaming the victims and asserting it has no obligation to protect sexual and gender minorities from violence and discrimination.” (Neela Ghoshal, HRW senior researcher on LGBT rights

In the meantime, on 16 September 2013, IRIN reports that Roger Jean Claude Mbede, 34, was sentenced to three years in prison for sending an SMS to another man saying, “I’m in love with you.

One day in 2011, after going out with friends, I sent an SMS to one of them to express my feelings, but this landed me in jail on charges of homosexuality. From the time of my arrest in Yaoundé, I was subjected to torture from the law enforcement officers. They coerced me to disclose information on my past relationships and my sex life. The gendarme officers kept smacking me, tore my shirt and treated me like a bandit. And during my prosecution, the judge kept shouting insults at me. I had no lawyer at the time. On 28 April 2011, I was convicted and given two-year prison term. While in jail, I suffered continuous abuse from inmates and prison guards. Many times, I went without basic necessities, such as food and water, because the prison officials refused to serve me like the others. Thanks to [a] human right defender and lawyer I started receiving legal representation after some months in prison. This was due to the fact that my health was deteriorating from the ill-treatment I was undergoing in prison. I lost close to 15kg, regularly suffered malaria fever and other complications. The lawyer filed a motion for my release on grounds of my health. The motion was granted on July 16, 2012, and I was provisionally released”

(Photo: Kingsely Nfor Monde/IRIN)

On 12 September 2013 the above-mentioned Neela Ghoshal wrote in an opinion piece “You’d think that all governments could agree that killing, raping or assaulting someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity is never acceptable – even in countries that ban same-sex conduct, or claim LGBTI rights offend their “traditional values.” But some governments refuse to condemn violence against LGBTI people, effectively giving the green light to anti-gay thugs…..In 2011 a Human Rights Council resolution called for a study of violence and discrimination against LGBT people. The ensuing report noted shocking levels of violence. Catherine Dupe Atoki, chair of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, publicly condemned homophobic violence in May 2013. Homophobia is of particular concern in Cameroon. LGBTI rights defender Eric Ohena Lembembe was brutally murdered in July. Lawyers and other activists regularly receive death threats. Police investigations are inadequate and sometimes nonexistent. Shamefully, unlike governments in Jamaica and Haiti that have publicly denounced recent hate crimes, the Cameroonian government said nothing about Lembembe’s death. It’s time to change tracks. At the UPR, Cameroon should show it is not indifferent to the suffering of LGBTI people.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: