- In a groundbreaking legal opinion, a UN agency today declared that the detention of 11 men in Cameroon on the basis of their presumed sexual orientation constitutes an arbitrary deprivation of liberty contrary to their human rights. The UN further called on the Yaoundé government to adopt necessary measures to remedy the situation, including the possible repeal of the offending law.
Today's ruling of the UN's human rights body came in response to a complaint brought by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) on behalf of the men. The 11 men were arrested at a bar frequented by gays and lesbians in Yaoundé and detained for more than one year on anti-homosexuality offences rising from Cameroon's Penal Code.
While in prison, the detainees faced harsh conditions and homophobic attacks from fellow prisoners. At their trial in June 2006, nine of the men were found guilty of "sodomy" and sentenced to ten-month jail terms. One of the men, Alim Mongoche, died of AIDS-related complications shortly after his conviction, exacerbated by the harsh conditions of detention, according to IGLHRC.
"I hope this decision will bring justice for gay people and will prevent cases like that of Alim, who died needlessly," Marc Lambert, one of the 11 former detainees, commented on the UN ruling. "The opinion reinforces the fact that laws which criminalize and discriminate based on sexual orientation are contrary to international human rights law," added Philip Dayle, Legal Officer at the ICJ.
The UN's Human Rights Committee in its ruling declared that sodomy laws are inconsistent with countries' obligations to protect the right of non-discrimination under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. At its 39th Session in Banjul, Gambia in March 2006, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights also questioned the Cameroonian government about its continued detention of the men.
This decision "marks one of only two occasions that this particular UN human rights body has publicly issued an opinion impugning detentions based on anti-homosexuality laws," according to an IGLHRC statement issued today.
The UN ruling is being hailed by IGLHRC, ICJ, and Alternatives-Cameroun - three groups that have worked internationally and locally on behalf of the 11 Cameroonian men since their arrest in May 2005 - as a major human rights victory for same-gender loving people in Africa.
Perhaps the UN body's decision "will help stop other people from being arrested and possibly dying simply because of their sexual orientation," stated Joel Gustave Nana, Human Rights Researcher for Alternatives-Cameroun.
On 7 June this year, four Cameroonian women were also convicted of sodomy and sentenced to 3 years probation and threatened with 6 months imprisonment "if they continue their lesbianism". At least four other men are still detained in Kondengui Central Prison because of their homosexuality, some without formal charge or trial, according to IGLHRC.
"The decision of the UN Working Group applies to all individuals in Cameroon who face similar charges related to consensual same-sex behaviour, not just to the 11," said Cary Alan Johnson, IGLHRC Senior Advisor for Africa. "We are calling on the government of Cameroon to live up to its international and regional obligations, to release anyone currently detained on sodomy charges, and repeal all laws that lead to these detentions," he added.
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