A prominent Cameroonian gay rights activist and journalist was apparently tortured before being killed just weeks after warning about the threat from "anti-gay thugs."
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports Eric Ohena Lembembe was found dead in his Yaoundé home Monday evening. According to a friend who discovered his body, Lembembe's neck and feet appeared to have been broken and his face, hands and feet had apparently been burned with an iron.
Working in one of the most LGBT-hostile societies on a notoriously homophobic continent, Lembembe reported on issues of importance to the gay community as a journalist and blogger. He was a regular contributor to the site Erasing 76 Crimes, and he co-authored "From Wrongs To Gay Rights", a book examining life for LGBT individuals in the 76 countries where homosexuality remains a crime.
Most recently, Lembembe served as the local executive director of the Cameroonian Foundation for Aids (CAMFAIDS), where he worked with domestic and international rights groups in drafting a 2013 HRW report on the prosecution of consenting gay adults.
"His organization assiduously documented arrests, violence and blackmail against LGBTI people in Cameroon," HRW said in a statement. There were plenty of all of the above to document. Human rights defenders have come under increasing attack in Cameroon, a conservative West African nation and former French colony of 20 million inhabitants where homosexuality is a crime punishable by up to five years behind bars:
- Jean-Claude Roger Mbede, 33, was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for sending an 'amorous' text message to another man.
- Jonas Singa Kumie and Franky Djome were sentenced to five years in prison for wearing women's clothing and ordering a cream-based liqueur in a nightclub. The men sought assistance from police after being attacked in a marketplace; instead, they were arrested and charged. An appeals court later overturned their convictions.
- Albert Edward Ekobo Samba, a homophobic conman, has collaborated with police in the entrapment and extortion of unwitting gay men
- Alternatives-Cameroun, a non-governmental organization dedicated to serving HIV/AIDS patients, was the victim of a June 26 arson attack.
- Gay-bashers attacked what they allegedly called a "gathering of fags"-- an LGBT rights conference-- in the capital Yaoundé last June, beating, robbing and terrorizing attendees.
- Michel Togué and Alice Nkom, human rights attorneys who represent clients accused of 'gay crimes', have been victims of burglary and death threats, including threats to murder their children. Police have not arrested any suspects.
Although homosexuality has a rich and ancient history in Africa, modern attitudes towards LGBT individuals on the continent are among the most hostile on earth. This is partly due to colonialism-- as Lembembe wrote, "most of the laws introduced against homosexuality are modeled after those of colonial powers." More recently, Christianity has played a significant role in fomenting homophobic hatred. Anti-gay US evangelical missionaries have brought their hateful message to African nations, inspiring and supporting legislation imposing severe criminal penalties (up to 14 years' imprisonment in Uganda, where LGBT activist David Kato was beaten to death) for homosexual acts. In Malawi, where gays also face up to 14 years behind bars, Christian pressure prompted the government to reverse a decision stop arresting suspected homosexuals.
Christianity, and "God's law," are often cited to justify severe repression of LGBT Africans. Chukwuemerie Uduchukwu writes in Premium Times, a leading Nigerian daily:
[Homosexuals] are... disobeying God's irreversible order to Adam and Eve to go into the world and multiply... The Nigerian National Assembly should be highly commended for standing firm against [homosexuality]... this nauseating practice... Nigeria should not allow herself to be blackmailed or intimidated into accepting this animalistic policy of the West...
Anybody that proposes homosexuality either directly or indirectly is committing crimes against nature and humanity and does not deserve to exist on this planet earth. The provision of 14 years [imprisonment] for people who engage in same-sex relationships (according to a bill passed by the two chambers of the Nigerian National Assembly) is even insufficient. For me, such people deserve life imprisonment.
Prominent African leaders, including Nobel Peace laureate and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, have defended the criminalization of homosexuality. In Ghana, government ministers have called for the arrest of all homosexuals. In Uganda, lawmakers drafted a bill that would have mandated execution by hanging for gays. The measure never passed, but the attitudes of African leaders towards LGBT individuals have contributed to the general atmosphere of hatred and impunity that permeates much of a continent where homosexuality is illegal in 38 of 54 countries. Only one African nation-- South Africa-- has legalized same-sex marriage, and even there, lesbians are often victims of 'corrective rape.'
It was this perilous atmosphere in which Eric Ohena Lembembe courageously carried out his mission.
"Eric was an inspiring activist whose work was deeply appreciated by human rights activists in Cameroon and around the world," HRW senior LGBT rights researcher Neela Ghosal said. "Advocating for equal rights in Cameroon, where LGBTI people face severe discrimination and violence, takes tremendous courage. Eric's activism paved the way for a society based on equality and nondiscrimination."
Ghosal called on Cameroonian authorities to bring whoever is responsible for Lembembe's brutal killing to justice.
"We don't know who killed Eric Lembembe, or why he was killed, but one thing is clear: the Cameroonian authorities' utter failure to stem homophobic violence sends the message that these attacks can be carried out with impunity," she said. "The police should not rest until the perpetrators of this horrific crime are brought to justice. President (Paul) Biya should break his silence on the wave of homophobic violence in Cameroon and publicly condemn this brutal attack."