Imprisoned for being a lesbian, aided by donors, Octavia has been set free

Arrested for sending text messages to her girlfriend, then sentenced to seven months in a Cameroonian prison for homosexuality, 28-year-old lesbian Octavia has been set free early after her fines were paid by donors to Project Not Alone 2022.

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In this illustration, artist Otavio Zani imagines the time when Octavia was in prison.

Pseudonyms are used in this article to protect the named individuals from further homophobic discrimination and attacks.

By Courtney Stans
African Human Rights Media Network

Octavia is one of eight prisoners who has been helped by last year’s Not Alone project, which provides food deliveries and legal defense to LGBTI Cameroonians imprisoned on charges of violating the nation’s anti-homosexuality law, Article 347-1.

She was arrested on Dec. 30, 2021, for sending a love note by text message to her 22-year-old girlfriend. She was tried and sentenced to seven months in prison.

A Nigeria native, Octavia previously worked as a guard at a security company.

Her girlfriend was Abelle, a student who was still living with her parents at the time. One evening, while Octavia was trying unsuccessfully to reach Abelle, she decided to text her a love message that asked her to come and see her at home.

Logo of Project Not Alone (Illustration courtesy of Otávio Zani)

Abelle’s phone was in the hands of her mother, who read the message. Realizing that it was from another girl, the mother summoned her daughter immediately.

After many threats, Abelle claimed that she had been cornered by a girl who kept sending her messages. Abelle denied that she was a lesbian and said she was not involved in a relationship with Octavia.

Arrested by the police, Octavia was transferred to the prosecutor’s office and sent to Kondengui prison. She was put on trial, convicted, sentenced of seven months in prison and ordered to pay a fine and court costs of 234,300 CFA francs (about U.S $390).

In prison, she suffered from an advanced case of herpes, which was not being treated.

She had no money to pay her fine, which would have meant that she would remain in  prison for several more months to pay the fines, but generous donors to Project Not Alone 2022, sponsored by the pro-LGBTQ Erasing 76 Crimes news site,  helped pay them so that she could be released early.

Donors also contributed 87,000 CFA francs (about $145) to purchase medicine to treat her herpes.

Since her release from prison, she has settled in the city of Kribi with one of her acquaintances. There she helps him run a small business.

Eventually, she hopes to be trained  in computer science in order to find a stable job and reorganize her life.

Octavia is one of eight prisoners helped by Project Not Alone 2022. She and four others (Amir, Elmer, Marty, and Dick) who were also tried and convicted, were released early because donors paid their fines.

Three others (Cam, Don, and Yvonne) were held for months without trial. Lawyers from Defenders Without Borders (DSF) agreed to defend them pro bono, with donors paying for legal expenses such as filing fees and documentation.

With their new lawyer, the cases of Cam and Don  quickly went to trial, where they were convicted of homosexuality. They were sentenced to a little more than the time they had already spent in jail while awaiting trial. Their story will be published soon.

The eighth prisoner, Yvonne, a transgender woman, remains incarcerated awaiting resolution of her case. The legal team was able to get the homosexuality charge against her dropped, but also learned that she has been repeatedly entangled in legal problems that extend beyond the scope of Project Not Alone.

In particular,  the charge of failing to carry a national identity card had seemed to be connected to her gender identity as a trans woman, which is why she was added to the original list of prisoners whom Project Not Alone would help. However, that explanation turned out to be inaccurate.

Courtney Stans, the author of this article, is a Cameroonian journalist who writes under a pseudonym. Contact her at [email protected].

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