Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Cameroon: Where Saying “I love you” Can Put You in Prison

I magine an existence where just texting a message to your lover could destroy your life and condemn you to a prison sentence of up to five years. 
As dystopian and far-fetched as it might sound, there are still places in the world where this can and does occur. 
Take the Mbede case in the West African nation of Cameroon.

Roger Mbede’s Story
Reporter Joe Mirabella in an article for the Huffington Post, highlights the plight of Jean-Paul Roger Mbede:
Roger was arrested last year for sending another man a text message that said, "I'm very much in love w/u." He was charged and convicted under Cameroon's law that criminalizes "homosexual behavior" and sentenced to three years in prison. He's spent more than a year in jail, while being subjected to abuse in custody, but is now finally appealing his conviction. Roger's hearing is scheduled for Monday, Sept. 17.
Mbede gave details about his arrest and incarceration to human rights interviewers.
"I found myself in handcuffs being treated like a criminal. I spent a week after I was arrested being tortured and insulted every day," explained Roger. "Now, my family says I'm dangerous and they cannot live with a homosexual. Cameroonians know who I am now. I don't know how I will even be able to go back to school and get a job."
According to the article, Roger is by no means a unique case.
"We're seeing more and more young people, like Roger, whose lives are destroyed because they're accused of the 'crime' of homosexuality," said Alice N'kom, a Cameroonian attorney renowned for her support for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Cameroon. "Because Roger's decided not to hide who he is, he's faced extreme violence and even death threats. ... These homophobic laws must be repealed, as soon as possible."
AmnestyUSA also reports on Mbede case:
Jean-Claude Roger Mbede was sentenced to 36 months in prison for homosexuality, a criminal offense under Section 347a of the Cameroonian Penal Code.
The Code states that "Whoever has sexual relations with a person of the same sex shall be punished with imprisonment from six months to five years and with a fine ranging from 20,000 Francs CFA to 200,000 Francs CFA" (approximately 35 to 350 US dollars). This contravenes a number of international and regional human rights treaties, including Cameroon’s obligations under the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and under the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.
Jean-Claude Roger Mbede is currently serving his sentence at Kondengui central prison in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. He is at risk of physical attack and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment on account of his real or perceived sexual orientation. Amnesty International considers Jean-Claude Roger Mbede to be a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned solely because of his perceived sexual orientation.
To be homosexual in a nation like Cameroon- which is not at all exceptional in its attitude toward its gay minorities- is a life filled with potential threats. As far as authorities are concerned, it’s not a matter of what you do but who you are.

For example, in August of last year, according to the Association pour la Défense de l’Homosexualité (ADEFHO) and Human Rights Watch, in Cameroon’s capital city, three men were detained and allegedly tortured by police simply because they were considered to be acting too feminine. The three were jailed on July 25, 2011, for one week and were tortured and otherwise abused by police during this time.Under Section 347 bis of Cameroon’s penal code, homosexuality is a punishable offence. It is important to add that the three were arrested merely for appearing feminine and, according to their later statements to human rights organizations, beaten on the soles of their feet until they confessed to homosexual acts.

This type of official persecution comes despite a 2010 United Nation Human Rights Committee recommendation that Cameroon decriminalize consensual homosexual conduct.

The Constitutional Protections that Don’t

Clearly, despite constitutional protections, the government of Cameroon has no intention of changing its policies.

In March 2012, the authorities shut down a human rights workshop in the capital Yaoundé that was to include discussion of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and arrested one of the workshop organizers. This is in direct violation of the nation’s constitution which expressly grants equal rights, freedom, and security to all persons and ensures the protection of minorities. 

The preamble of the Constitution of Cameroon acknowledges the legitimacy of the rights laid out in Universal Declaration of Human Rights to all Cameroonian citizens.
We, people of Cameroon,
  • declare that the human person, without distinction as to race, religion, sex or belief, possesses inalienable and sacred rights; 
  • all persons shall have equal rights and obligations. The State shall provide all its citizens with the conditions necessary for their development;
- the State shall ensure the protection of minorities and shall preserve the rights of indigenous populations in accordance with the law;

- freedom and security shall be guaranteed to each individual, subject to respect for the rights of others and the higher interests of the State;
This preamble also supports the Charter of the United Nations, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. Among the applicable civil and political rights listed in the African Charter are:

But then the overall human rights record of the Cameroon government, headed by 78-year-old Paul Biya for the last 28 years, is pretty dismal. According to the State Department:
Human rights abuses included security force killings; security force torture, beatings, and other abuses, particularly of detainees and prisoners; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; and arbitrary arrest and detention of citizens advocating secession, local human rights monitors and activists, persons not carrying government-issued identity cards, and others.
There were incidents of prolonged and sometimes incommunicado pretrial detention and of infringement on privacy rights. The government harassed and imprisoned journalists, restricted freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association, and impeded freedom of movement.
Official corruption was pervasive at all levels. Societal violence and discrimination against women, female genital mutilation (FGM), trafficking in persons (primarily children), and discrimination against pygmies and gays and lesbians occurred. The government restricted worker rights and the activities of independent labor organizations. Child labor, hereditary servitude, and forced labor, including forced child labor, were problems.
Clearly with a record like that, the Cameroon government feels no great obligation to abide by the international charters that its own constitutions claims to support.

Western Silence and Paul Biya
Furthermore, the leadership role played by Europe and the United States has been noticeably absent, especially when it comes to taking concrete steps in improving the human rights situation there. 
Under George Bush, for example, all discussion of these human rights abuses in Cameroon were put on hold. There was a very good reason for that too. According to one source:
In 2002, Paul Biya caught a break. Cameroon happened to be serving a two-year term as a member of the United Nations Security Council when U.S. president George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq and needed the support of Security Council members. Biya, a longtime friend of France’s president, Jacques Chirac, found himself being wooed by Bush and visited him in the White House the day that the U.S. began its bombing of Baghdad. U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell praised Cameroon as “a place of stability” and promised that “we will do everything we can to strengthen the government.” The criticisms of Biya’s human rights record, which had been catalogued in the reports of Powell’s own State Department, were swept aside as if they had never happened.
The bottom line, for the United States, was easy to understand and an all too common foreign policy defect. Stability- regardless of the human rights abuses- overrides our democratic values. Yet, few in the State Department seem to understand that this kind of stability is illusionary or, at the very least, comes at a great cost to American prestige when these kinds of countries implode.

Since that time, Biya has predictably continued to rule as a despot. In 2008, he had the constitution altered to protect him from prosecution once he left office. However, Biya doesn’t seem in any hurry to leave since amendments to the constitution also removed term limits for the presidency. (The country’s 1996 Constitution specifies that the presidential term of office is for seven years and is eligible for re-election once. “Although he has been in power for 25 years, President Biya was elected under the new constitution in 1997 and reelected in 2004, therefore making him ineligible to seek a third term.” )

In 2009, his state security forces were accused of a variety of abuses, including the killing of as many as 200 protesters. Follow-up investigations of such incidents are rare, punishments rarer still. (For a more complete picture of the human rights abuses in Cameroon, the US State Department compiled a list in 2010.)

For its citizens the message is clear: any dissent in Cameroon is not tolerated. The Biya administration sought to head off the possibility of rebellion after witnessing the revolutions of the Arab Spring. His government ordered cell phone companies to suspend mobile services for Twitter in an effort to prevent any mass gatherings.

The people have good reasons for protesting too. As William Easterly writing for the New York Times Review of Books explains:
Paul Biya ... is marking his twenty-eighth year in power in 2010 by receiving the latest in a never-ending series of loans from the International Monetary Fund with imaginative labels like “Poverty Reduction Growth Facilities.” Biya, whose government also enjoys ample oil revenues, has received a total of $35 billion in foreign aid during his reign. There’s been neither poverty reduction nor growth in his country: the average Cameroonian is poorer today than when Biya took power in 1982.
The organization Cameroon Revolution in an open letter to President Obama stated:
We demand that the United States of America be true to its values, asks Mr. Paul Biya to step down; categorically rejects him and stops dealing with him and his government; imposes strong sanctions against them; freezes all their funds and fortune in order to transfer them back to the Cameroonian people who desperately need them. Also, we demand that the United States of America contributes to transfer Mr. Paul Biya and his aides to justice if they selfishly hang on to power, risk instability and civil war, which would again force the United States to intervene, waste their resources and be distracted from solving pressing problems of the American people.
We want to sincerely ask you to stand with all means and American power on our side, the side of the people, of democracy, human rights and liberties. Your ascendance to the head of the United States of America, Leader of the free world, and the leadership of America in the world are an inspiration to us and we call on you to stand by us on the right side of history.
When a prominent journalist, Bibi Ngota died as a result of “abandonment, improper care,” by prison authorities, and “failure to render assistance.” in Kondengui prison on April 27, 2010, instead of dealing with the problem in a constructive way, the government took an unusual ( and frankly bizarre) step of hiring a public relations specialist to rehabilitate Cameroon’s image. 

Cameroon hired the Atlanta-based lobbying firm GoodWorks International, founded and co-Chaired by American politician, diplomat, activist and pastor Andrew Young. Its task? To develop “a roadmap” to improving US relations.
GoodWorks stated in government filings that its main focus is to press the U.S. State Department’s Millennium Challenge Corporation for foreign aid dollars. The corporation awards funds to struggling countries with the aim of promoting development and reducing poverty. The program promises to decide which nations get millions of dollars in international aid based not on connections and favoritism, but objective measures.
A classic case of improving an image but not the reality of a situation for the sake of dollars. Fittingly, perhaps, it was Andrew Young who once said,
Moral power is probably best when it is not used. The less you use it the more you have.
Unfortunately, when it comes to human rights and especially gay equality rights, that maxim has become an all too common feature of US foreign policy. Finding new ways to use less of its moral power (while talking about it a lot) seems to be the US leadership role nowadays.

Gays Rights, Human Rights
Last year, Hillary Clinton delivered an impressive speech on this subject on Human Rights Day in Geneva. In that speech she noted that, although the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights made no explicit mention of equality rights of homosexuals, the UN 1948 UN resolution represented a global statement of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled, male or female, black or white, rich or poor, straight or gay.
Today, I want to talk about the work we have left to do to protect one group of people whose human rights are still denied in too many parts of the world today. In many ways, they are an invisible minority. They are arrested, beaten, terrorized, even executed. Many are treated with contempt and violence by their fellow citizens while authorities empowered to protect them look the other way or, too often, even join in the abuse. They are denied opportunities to work and learn, driven from their homes and countries, and forced to suppress or deny who they are to protect themselves from harm.
I am talking about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, human beings born free and given bestowed equality and dignity, who have a right to claim that, which is now one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time.
She also added:
Some have suggested that gay rights and human rights are separate and distinct; but, in fact, they are one and the same....Yet in the past 60 years, we have come to recognize that members of these groups are entitled to the full measure of dignity and rights, because, like all people, they share a common humanity.
Clinton took on a popular fallacy that connects gay equality- or even homosexuality, itself- with a corrosive Western influence.
Some seem to believe it is a Western phenomenon, and therefore people outside the West have grounds to reject it. Well, in reality, gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world. They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes; and whether we know it, or whether we acknowledge it, they are our family, our friends, and our neighbors.

Being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality. And protecting the human rights of all people, gay or straight, is not something that only Western government.
These are fine, even brave words for any US official, but the role of world leader consists of more than making speeches. Often it requires taking a firm stand against unacceptable behavior. Sometimes we paradoxically must not tolerate bigotry and intolerance. 

Still it is relatively easy to go to Geneva and talk about gay equality, that's like talking about the oil shortage in Saudi Arabia.

An Imperfect World
In a perfect world, we might look outside of governments to help solve problems of bigotry and intolerance. In a perfect world, we might seek the aid of religions -once an inspiration for goodness and the very concept of human rights. Unfortunately, this is not that kind of world. 

Only last month, the Archbishop of Yaoundé, Simon-Victor Tonyé Bakot, adding fuel to public intolerance and government oppression by stating his belief that homosexuality was opposed to the ideal of human reproduction and was a danger to the family unit, 'an affront to the family, enemy of women and creation.' 
In the past, the archbishop made similar statements.
In December 2005, he stated that homosexuality was a crime against the family and marriage. His statement generated a homophobic nationwide debate with several Cameroon papers alleging the existence of a homosexual ‘mafia’ outing by means of publishing a list of many prominent people, including government ministers, as evidence of this allegation.
The idea of a gay mafia fits into the usual fear-mongering that was similarly used the in Germany under the Nazis. Claims of a Jewish “cabal” were used to justify the civil abuses against the Jewish minorities there. As we have seen, then as now, the conscience of Catholic Church remained silent and motionless. In fact, it was not until its own priests were dragged to prisons by the Nazis that the Church drew the line. 

(Remarkably, in the case of homosexuality, the Church- while decrying consensual sex between adults- continues to protect its own priests who have engaged in pedophilia.) 

Sadly it is not a case of the Pope misplacing Cameroon on the map. In March 2009, Pope Benedict visited the nation as part of his "Year of Africa tour", raising hopes of Cameroon citizens seeking positive changes. 
Instead, the dictator organized a literal clean up of the capital which involved bulldozing the slums. As one witness reported:
All small shops, houses, vendor's stalls that don't look nice enough are being destroyed with a large caterpillar. The truck comes by, looks at your stall/house/whatever and if the driver doesn't like, he just destroys it with all its content. It all started about a week ago in the city centre.
Pope Benedict? In his speech there, he talked about the transforming effect of hardship and injustice but did not mention the hardship and injustice of homophobia that his faith openly visits upon the gay minority in Cameroon.
In the face of suffering or violence, poverty or hunger, corruption or abuse of power, a Christian can never remain silent.
About homophobia and inhumane treatment of gays, he chose to remain silent. Still, he did go out of his way to strongly endorse family values, which has become little more than a dog whistle for attacking homosexuals. Additionally he stirred a mini-furor by stating that the AIDS crisis "cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems" With that one irresponsible remark, he destroyed the work dozens of non-governmental organizations that had worked tirelessly at sex education in Cameroon.

In fairness, it is not merely the Catholic Church which allows its representative to promote this kind of homophobia. Islam with its own Sharia laws legitimizes the stoning of gays to death. According to one article in African journal:
It would seem that neither Christianity nor Islam in Africa disseminate wholesale tolerance of sexual orientation, they just differ in how it should be legally viewed and punished.
While these long-held interpretations of ancient religious scripture are standard operating procedure for Catholicism and Islam, the efforts of right wing evangelicals from America are cause for further concern by human rights monitors. Kristin Rawls, writing for AlterNet, observes:
Members of the Christian right in the United States are promoting human rights abuses against LGBT people throughout the continent. But it is not always possible to find specific information about what they do. Very few American evangelicals are willing to admit the extent of their involvement in the wave of anti-gay legislation sweeping Africa.
It is ironic that evangelical Christians- whose Protestant background was born from a rejection of Catholic oppression- should now invest itself with the same shameful oppressive practices. 

One person who would probably not have been at all surprised by the conspiracy between intolerant religions and oppressive governments would be Thomas Paine, one of America’s earlier sources for political inspiration. He once stated:
All religions are in their nature mild and benign, and united with principles of morality. They could not have made proselytes at first, by professing anything that was vicious, cruel, persecuting or immoral. Like every thing else, they had their beginning; and they proceeded by persuasion, exhortation, and example. How then is it that they lose their native mildness, and become morose and intolerant?
Persecution is not an original feature in any religion, but it is always the strongly marked feature of all law-religions, or religions established by law.
Conversely, persecution is often a feature when laws are established by or at least endorsed by religions. Paine's warning about the effects of mixing government and religion are just as timely today. 
*    *    *    *
After nearly a year in prison, where he suffered malnutrition and was at continual risk of sexual assault and other forms of abuse by both guards and inmates, Mbede was granted a provisional release for medical treatment in July 2012. 
It was not the end of the story. His release was conditional on appeal. That court hearing has been delayed and nothing has been reported about the outcome of the last scheduled hearing on September 17. 

In any event and whatever the outcome, he has already paid a heavy price simply for telling somebody that he loved him.

Update: Sad news to report:
— A gay man in Cameroon who was jailed for sending a text message to another man saying "I'm very much in love with you," and who was later declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, has died, according to a lawyer who worked on his case.
Roger Jean-Claude Mbede, 34, died Friday roughly one month after his family removed him from the hospital where he had been seeking treatment for a hernia, lawyer Alice Nkom said.
"His family said he was a curse for them and that we should let him die," she said.