Couple in Cameron spent 11+ months in prison without a trial.
Two women in Cameroon spent nearly a year behind bars without a trial after they were arrested on charges of lesbianism last January.
Katie and Mimi were finally set free on Dec. 29 through the efforts of pro-bono lawyers in Cameroon, a Cameroonian LGBTI rights activist/journalist and generous readers of the Erasing 76 Crimes news site.
Fundraising is now under way for the site’s activist journalists, whose hands-on work fuels RightsAfrica and provides the foundation for Project Not Alone’s advocacy on behalf of innocent LGBTQ prisoners such as Katie and Mimi.
Katie and Mimi are two of the 13 innocent victims of Cameroonian and Nigerian homophobia that Project Not Alone has been working to set free, starting last May. So far all but two of the 13 have been released. (Prisoners’names in this article are pseudonyms for their safety after release.)
Katie and Mimi’s troubles began on Jan. 16, 2023, in the small town of Mfou just east of Cameroon’s capital city of Yaoundé. Accusations of infidelity turned into a loud argument between Katie and Mimi, which caught the attention of neighbors.
Suddenly realizing that Katie, age 27, and Mimi, age 34, were lesbians, the neighbors notified police, who arrived at their home and arrested them. The specific charges against them were homosexuality and private outrage of modesty (Articles 347-1 and 295 of the penal code). Under Cameroonian law, same-sex intimacy is punishable by up to five years in prison.
The lesbian couple was held in Cameroon’s grim, unsanitary Mfou Prison, where prisoners are fed only one paltry meal a day. They had no lawyer, but month after month they kept hoping for news of any legal proceedings.
In May, Project Not Alone began publicizing the plight of Katie, Mimi and the other 11 prisoners and began raising money to help them. By July, enough funds had been donated to cover the legal expenses of an attorney from Defenseurs Sans Frontières (DSF), who would work pro-bono for Katie and Mimi.
In July, they told him, “Since we have been here, no one has told us anything. We are already more than six months here. We have not yet had a hearing. We don’t understand.”
One complicating factor for Katie and Mimi was that the prosecution lost Mimi’s file. If the couple were in the United States, such a misstep could promptly lead to their release. In Cameroon, it led to additional delays as the prosecution worked to reassemble the lost file.
In October, Erasing 76 Crimes reporter Steeves Winner visited the couple in Mfou Prison with a delivery of food and hygiene items paid for by donors to Project Not Alone. He reported that both Katie and Mimi were doing well and were in high spirits. They were eagerly awaiting their release from prison so they could return to their daily lives. But they would have to wait an additional two months.
The DSF attorney had asked for the women’s files to be presented to a judge in July.
But at a hearing on August, the prosecutor revealed that Mimi’s file still was not ready to go to a judge. The case was scheduled for a hearing on Oct. 3 that was delayed until Nov. 14 and then until Dec. 14.
The attorney visited the couple on Dec. 5. He reported that the two women seemed tired and Mimi had been ill.
In December, the prosecutor, the defense attorney and the judge cooperated in reassembling Mimi’s file.
Finally, on Dec. 14, the judge found both women guilty. He sentenced Katie to 13 months in prison, counting from Jan. 16, 2003, and fined her 200,000 CFA francs plus court costs of 14,000 CFA francs (a total of about $359). He sentenced Mimi to 12 months in prison, a 185,000 CFA franc fine and 14,000 CFA francs of court costs.
The St. Paul’s Foundation promptly transferred $719 to DSF, which used it to pay the women’s fines and court costs.
On Dec. 21, DSF requested early release for both women. The judge agreed, so Katie and Mimi were released on Dec. 29 instead of waiting until 2024.
In a brief interview on Dec. 29, Katie said they planned to leave Mfou and settle elsewhere. “The whole town brands us lesbians. It’s unbearable,” she said.
While they were in prison, they were threatened with rape. “Those threats made us lose the little sleep we were allowed,” Katie said.
Mimi added, “The threats we suffered in prison no longer encourage us to want to stay here in Mfou.”
Katie said she didn’t understand why her sentence was longer than Mimi’s. [Their attorney explained that the harsher sentence was because Katie had been less cooperative during their arrest in January 2023, at least according to the prosecutor,]
Mimi said that the problems with the incomplete file scared here. “I thought I was never going to get out of this hell,” she said.
Both women expressed their thanks to the St. Paul’s Foundation, to Project Not Alone and to its donors.
“When DSF, with the support of Project Not Alone, announced to us that it was going to assist us, we felt a great sense of relief, ” Mimi said.
“I will always be grateful to them; handling our files, legal assistance and paying our fines are things that have helped us a lot,” she said.
“We are now free because of their actions and their gifts. We thank them endlessly,” Katie said. “In addition to paying our fines, we have early release. We are really happy.”
Of the 13 innocent victims of homophobia that Project Not Alone has been working to set free, no more than two remain behind bars.
In the fall, the project paid the fines for innocent lesbian prisoners Martha and Sally at Bafoussam Prison in western Cameroon, which made them eligible for early release in December rather than having to wait until their full sentence ends in April.
We are still awaited word that they have actually been released.
The work of Project Not Alone is made possible by both by donors and by this news site’s financial sponsor, the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which is seeking donations to continue the work for LGBTQ+ rights, equality and acceptance, especially in Africa and the Caribbean.
Please DONATE to help us reach our fundraising goal of $5,000, which will allow the advocacy journalists whom we support to continue their work into next year. They are active in Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda, the Caribbean and in French-speaking Africa.
PLEASE DONATE NOW: Donations are needed to continue supporting our advocacy journalists and operating the websites that deliver their articles to readers. Here are ways to make a donation supporting LGBTQ rights (tax-deductible in the U.S.):
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For a full account of the launch of this year’s Project Not Alone, see the article “Help us free 13 imprisoned LGBTQ victims of homophobia”.