Christi van der Westhuizen interviews ALICE NKOM, Cameroonian lawyer
CAPE TOWN, Feb 3 (IPS) - In 2003, Alice Nkom made a decision that has put her on a collision course with the police, prosecutors and judges of Cameroon. Nkom, who has been a barrister at the Cameroonian Bar for 40 years, was chatting with some young men whom she considers her own children.
She realised they were gay. Not only that, having gone after school to France to study and only ever living there as out gay men, they were oblivious to the extent of the persecution they faced for expressing their sexuality in Cameroon. Extortion and unfair prosecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are common occurrences in the Francophone west African state.
They were handsome and full of life, talking passionately about their plans. She was struck by the injustice of their situation and felt she had a duty to do something, otherwise ‘‘coming back to Cameroon means having to choose to go to jail for who you are, to have one’s dignity trampled upon all the time, to be a victim of the police’’.
She founded the Association for the Defence of Homosexuals and has ever since been acting as defence lawyer for LGBT people in Cameroon.
Christi van der Westhuizen spoke to her when she attended a recent workshop of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) in Cape Town, South Africa.
The meeting, which gathered LGBT activists from across Africa, was held to strategise around litigating against the myriad laws that still discriminate against LGBT people on the continent. IGLHRC is an international non-governmental organisation.
IPS: What is the legal status of LGBT people in Cameroon?
Alice Nkom: On Sep. 28, 1972, article 347 was introduced into the Cameroonian penal code which prescribes penalties of up to five years for anyone, whether man or woman, who is caught having sex with someone of the same sex.
(The situation recently became worse) when, on December 25, 2005, the archbishop of Yaoundé made LGBT people the theme of his Christmas sermon. This caused a witch hunt with LGBT people accused of being the root cause of all social ills, the root of unemployment and corruption, in Cameroon.
The archbishop said that high-profile people who were "homosexuals" forced other Cameroonians into same-sex activities in return for jobs. This launched a media frenzy where journalists abandoned their codes of ethics and published lists of names of people who were supposedly gay. Tabloids suddenly started selling. Photocopies were sold even more expensively than the originals.
This went on until Feb. 10, 2006 when the president of Cameroon told people to stop speculating about the vices and virtues of one another while trampling on people’s fundamental rights. He said the publications should cease because freedom of expression stops where people’s right to privacy starts. This ended the frenzy.
It had consequences as children (whose parents’ names were published in the newspapers) were attacked by their friends at school. Some (threatened) suicide if their parents could not ‘‘prove’’ that they were not gay or lesbian.
IPS: What is the reality of LGBT people’s lives today in Cameroon?
AN: Every day I hear about extortion here and there. It is not healthy for young people who are trying to enjoy their lives. There is a close relationship between one’s happiness and enjoyment of one’s sexuality.
They are unhappy because at any given time they can be subjected to arrest or blackmail - even when the law does not provide the police with the power to do so.
There is a criminal procedure code which is continuously violated when it comes to gay and lesbian people. The code does not provide the prosecutor the power to arraign somebody unless the person was caught in flagrante delicto (caught in the act).
A police officer does not have the right to come to your house or to bars to arrest you for homosexuality. But what happens is that people are just thought to be gay... (which) catches the attention of greedy police officers who are looking for someone to blackmail.
IPS: So people are being arrested on suspicion, even if they were not caught in the act?
AN: In none of the cases of homosexuality which I have defended was the person ever caught in flagrante delicto. I raise this concern every time but the judges never respond.
IPS: Have you had successes in defending people?
AN: Not the kind of successes that I would have wanted. In one case, nine people were charged. The judge wanted them to go for forensic anal tests, which means that not only were they spending seven months in jail (pending the case) but the judge wanted to force them to undergo a humiliating test to show that they were actually gay. Medical doctors refused to carry out the tests.
He released two of the men for unknown reasons. The remaining seven were sentenced to seven months in jail and then released for time served. In all, they spent 12 months and 12 days in jail. How did the judge manage to find them homosexual, given that he did not get the proof he was looking for? They were found guilty on the basis of personal beliefs.
In another case two people (tried to steal from someone at whose house they were staying). He called the police. The two thieves got the idea to say the complainant wanted to sleep with them. It turned into a "gay case". The prosecutor charged all three with homosexuality and they were sentenced to six months.
IPS: Are lesbians affected?
AN: In 2006, the principal of a private high school expelled 12 students on the eve of the final exams. He had been told that one had said to the other ‘‘whatever she did, she would belong to her’’. She was arrested. She had to say who her girlfriend was. Each person had to reveal another name and so they got a list of students.
The head of the school went on a media campaign to encourage all principals to eradicate homosexuality in their schools.
The grandmother of one of the girls accused another girl of "misleading" her granddaughter. They laid a charge with the police. The police arrested the granddaughter and her friend and another two girls who were mentioned during the discussions. They were sent to jail, four girls (all under 18).
As in all the other cases, it was not on the basis of in flagrante delicto – it was based on what other people had alleged. The prosecutor coerced them to not accept me as their advocate. A month later they received suspended sentences of three months each.
IPS: You were also locked up once.
AN: This was in 2006. I paid a visit to my clients in jail to prepare them psychologically for the court. I was in the meeting room taking pictures of them with my mobile phone. I was arrested. I told the prison boss, you can’t just take my mobile - it’s my mobile and those are their images, which they own.
I spoke to the attorney general and said to him you are here to do your job and I’ll do mine. You can’t arrest me without showing which law I violated. (She was released a few hours later and her phone was returned.)
IPS: How do your peers respond to your work?
AN: Many of them are very homophobic. Others are indifferent. I receive little support.
It’s very important to me that kids are taught from early to be tolerant, to respect difference. They can land in a place (abroad) where they are in the minority and where they need other people to respect them. Diversity is a good thing - it enriches our lives. If we don’t embrace it we will have terrorism, racism.