By ROBBIE COREY-BOULET
Michel Togue said judges in Yaounde, the capital, sentenced 48-year-old Joseph Omgbwa to two years in prison and 19-year-old Nicolas Ntamack to one year. A third suspect, Seraphin Ntsama, was acquitted.
The convictions came less than two weeks after a prominent Cameroonian gay rights activist, Eric Ohena Lembembe, was tortured and killed in an attack his friends suspect was related to his activism.
Togue said he plans to appeal the convictions, which he described as baseless.
“You know, this judgment makes me very sad and angry because we didn’t have evidence to convict those guys of being homosexual,” Togue said.
He said the verdict would further devastate a community already shaken by the death of Lembembe, the most prominent African gay rights activist to be killed since 2011. “Ever since this man was murdered the community is really frightened, and I think they didn’t need this kind of verdict today,” Togue said.
Homosexuality is punishable by up to five years in prison in Cameroon, and officials have zealously pursued prosecutions under the law dating back to 2005, according to local and international human rights groups.
Human Rights Watch says the country pursues more prosecutions of sexual minorities than any other in sub-Saharan Africa. In a March report, the organization said charges had been brought against at least 28 people under the law in the last three years.
Omgbwa was arrested in August 2011 after gendarmes, tipped off by a man who said Omgbwa made sexual advances toward him, searched his house without a warrant, according to Human Rights Watch.
A court report said the gendarmes found “several objects that left no doubt about (Omgbwa’s) homosexual activities,” including condoms and a lubricant. The other two suspects, Ntamack and Ntsama, were arrested when they went to visit Omgbwa in prison.
Omgbwa and at least one of the other suspects have said they were subjected to forced anal examinations intended to determine whether they had engaged in gay sex, a procedure rights groups say has no scientific merit and is tantamount to torture.
Neela Ghoshal, senior Human Rights Watch researcher for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders, said the case violated promises from Cameroonian officials to pursue gay suspects only if were “caught in the act.”
“It’s shameful that two more people have been convicted of consensual same-sex conduct in Cameroon,” just after the killing of Lembembe, she said. “The government continues to send the message that LGBTI people are less than human.”
On Monday, a group of Cameroonian gay rights groups said they would be forced to suspend their HIV/AIDS programming until international partners helped them confront a worsening security situation.
“In the fight for the rights of sexual minorities in Cameroon, the long-decried climate of homophobia has intensified and now has reached a critical point,” said the statement signed by leaders of four organizations, including Lembembe’s CAMFAIDS.
“We also note that serious threats have been made against the locations and members of our organizations, to the point where continuing our current work unchanged would be dangerous,” the statement said. “We reject a partnership that reduces our associations to simply a labor force that must work in precarious, dangerous conditions.”