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Rights group calls on Cameroon's Biya to condemn death threats

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Rights group calls on Cameroon's Biya to condemn death threats

BY NATASHA BARSOTTI — Human Rights Watch (HRW) is calling on Cameroon's president to condemn and investigate death threats targeting two human rights lawyers who defend people "charged with homosexuality." 

The Feb 13 letter to Paul Biya notes that lawyers Alice Nkom and Michel Togué began receiving death threats in October last year after defending clients accused of homosexuality in two matters – the case of Roger Jean-Claude Mbede and the case of Franky Djome and Jonas Singa Kimié — that attracted international attention.

A court overturned the conviction of Djome and Kumié, who were sentenced to five-year prison terms after they were found guilty of "homosexual behaviour." Police arrested Kimié and Djome outside a nightclub in the capital, Yaoundé, in July 2011. They were subsequently sentenced to jail because of the clothes they were wearing (considered not masculine enough), their "feminine" speech and for drinking Baileys, perceived as a gay man's drink.

Meanwhile, an appeals court upheld the three-year sentence of Roger Jean-Claude Mbede, who was found guilty of homosexual conduct for expressing his love for another man in a text message. 

HRW's letter provides details of the threats Nkom and Togué received:

The death threats make specific reference to the work of the lawyers in defending alleged gays and lesbians. They come from an email address 'pasdepedesauCameroon@gmail.com,' meaning 'No faggots in Cameroon,' and from several Cameroonian telephone numbers. The messages use homophobic slurs to refer to Nkom and Togué. They threaten that the lawyers will be killed on specific dates. One message to Nkom promises, 'This will be bloody.' Another, threatening her clients, warns 'It only remains [to find] their houses… the neighborhoods are already in our hands.” A message received by Togué contains photographs taken of his daughter just outside her primary school, suggesting that the perpetrators of these threats are following the lawyers and their families. A subsequent message warns Togué to stop “defending your faggot ideas,” or risk being “at the bedside of one of your dying children.

Watch an HRW video interview with the lawyers.

According to HRW's letter, Nkom filed complaints in October but has received no response and no request for further information so that prosecutors could pursue investigations. Togué also sought recourse from authorities but was told that he should stop representing people charged with homosexuality if he wanted the death threats to stop.

"Law enforcement agencies should investigate the source of the messages through established legal channels and should prosecute those found responsible," HRW's Graeme Reid and Daniel Bekele say in the letter to Biya.

Reid and Bekele also urge the president to "make all Cameroons aware that, whatever beliefs they may hold about homosexuality, threats of violence against lawyers and human rights defenders, as well as threats against alleged gays and lesbians, are reprehensible and will not be tolerated."

"Article 7 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, which is integrated into the Cameroonian constitution under article 45, guarantees to anyone accused of a crime 'the right to defense, including the right to be defended by counsel of his choice.' The death threats received by the lawyers, coupled with the authorities’ inaction, amount to a threat to this basic right," the letter states.

In a Jan 31 story, Reuters quotes Biya as saying that attitudes toward the criminalization of homosexuality were changing. "People are talking, minds can change one way or another, but currently it's a crime," Biya told media after meeting with French president François Hollande in Paris.

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