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Cameroon: Freed after 18 months, gay men say ‘thank you’ to supporters

Generous donors have brought about the early release of nine Cameroonian prisoners who were convicted of homosexuality. Two more are scheduled for release this month. This is the story of the eighth and ninth prisoners to win early release through Project Not Alone / Pas Seul.

From the African Human Rights Media Network
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Illustration depicts Nick and Allen, a gay couple who were arrested at work for protesting their boss’s decision to stop paying them because they are gay. (Illustration by Vincent Kyabayinze, East Africa Visual Artists/ EAVA Artists)

For safety, names in this article are pseudonyms. 

By Courtney Stans

It started with love at first sight. Allen was an accountant and Nick was a secretary in the same company. Soon they became a couple and moved in together.

They lived together discreetly, hiding their relationship from their colleagues.

“We lived happily but hidden,” Allen recalled. “Our work was appreciated by our boss until the day he caught us in a café.

“We had gone out on a Saturday night for a walk. Then we decided to have a drink in a very discreet café. We were chatting quietly when our boss entered the bar. That was the beginning of hell,”

After the boss spotted them in the bar, he did not bully them or fire them. He simply stopped paying then, without mentioning what he was doing.

Allen and Nick continued to work as normal without suspecting anything. They thought the company must be having financial problems because they received no paychecks. After two months without pay, they realized that they were the only ones not getting paid.

They went to their boss to demand an explanation. He threatened them. An argument broke out. The boss called the police. Allen and Nick were arrested and held in police custody.

Then the police began to investigate their private lives. They asked Allen and Nick if they had children and why neither of them had gotten married. The investigators concluded that Allen and Nick were a homosexual couple.

Entrance of the Central Prison in the Kondengui section of Yaoundé, Cameroon.

On Oct. 17, 2020, they were charged with violating the Cameroonian law against same-sex intimacy, Section 347-1 of the Penal Code.

They were thrown into prison and essentially forgotten, without trial, for nearly a year.

They were held in the Yaoundé Central Prison, a place where inmates must survive in filthy, overcrowded conditions with only one (often poorly prepared) meal a day. Nick recalled later:

“Life in prison is a nightmare for people who have been convicted of homosexuality. They are twice as despised as the worst criminals. They have to live in hiding and suffer horrors not only from other prisoners but also from prison guards. Sometimes their meals are stolen. They are often subjected to ill treatment.”

As of last spring, Allen and Nick were two of 11 LGBT prisoners held there, all of them charged or convicted of nothing more than violating Section 347-1.

Logo of Defenders Without Borders (Défenseurs Sans Fronières, or DSF)

To help those 11 prisoners, this news site; its financial sponsor, the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation; and the gay-friendly legal aid organization Defenders Without Borders (DSF) launched Project Not Alone / Pas Seul.  Through that project, donors provided funds for food and hygiene supplies for the prisoners, delivered by activist/journalist Steeves Winner, and money to pay their fines.

The project also provided legal representation for Allen, Nick and one other detainee who had not yet gone to trial. Readers’ donations covered legal expenses such as filing fees, while the lawyers at DSF worked pro bono.

Thanks to their new lawyer from DSF,  Allen and Nick were released on bail — briefly — and then  were quickly brought to trial. They were convicted of violating Section 347-1 and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

But the magistrate ruled that the time they had already spent in prison would count against their sentence.

Allen and Nick were both ordered to pay a fine and court costs — a total of 212,100 CFA francs (about U.S. $356) for Nick and 214,300 CFA francs (about U.S. $359) for Allen. Neither of them had money to pay the fines, so their sentence was to be extended to 24 months in order to work off that debt. Readers’ donations covered their fines, so they only had to serve time from October 2020 until February 2022.

On Feb. 10 at around 2 p.m, they walked out the doors of the Yaoundé Central Prison in the Kondengui district of Yaoundé.

Logo of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation

With their release, nine of the 11 prisoners have been set free. The remaining two LGBT prisoners are scheduled for release this month.

Allen and Nick told their DSF attorney, “We don’t know exactly what will happen next. We plan to  stay in the city and set up a small business. Many of our friends are here and they are willing to help us out.

“Probably we will open a food stall on the street. Because with this experience of going to jail for claiming our salary, we are not sure if we will ever work for someone again.”

Asked if they had any further remarks to make as they began the next phase of their lives, they thanked the organizations that sponsored Project Not Alone/Pas Seul, DSF and the St. Paul’s Foundation, along with foundation president Colin Stewart, the foundation’s donors, and journalist Steeves Winner:

“Thank you for what you all did. A big thank you for the St. Paul Foundation and to the donors for their good heart

“Thank you, Colin, for the initiative.

“Thank you [DSF lawyer] for your work, the attention and your professionalism.

“Thank you, Steeves, for your patience, time and energy during your visits to us in prison.

“The gay community in Cameroon really needs people like you. We need the support of organizations like Defenders Without Borders and St. Paul’s Foundation and its donors.”

Source: African Human Rights Media Network member Erasing 76 Crimes.