The Unfortunate Death of a Prominent Activist in Cameroon

One of the most outspoken and public lgbt and AIDS rights activists, Cameroon’s Eric Ohena Lembembe, was found in his home dead on Monday, July 15, with graphic signs pointing toward torture and murder.

His death comes less than two weeks after President Obama toured Arica speaking to leaders about many issues including a partnership between the U.S. and African countries, as well as lgbt equality throughout the continent.

Lembembe was recently named the director of CAMIFAIDS, the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS, after being a journalist for the organization. His work had focused on detailing violence, blackmail, and arrests of queer people in Cameroon, where he would then publish the details to spread awareness about the country and its horrid policies and homophobic attitudes. He also contributed frequently to the bog “Erasing 76 Crimes” about countries criminalizing homosexuality, wrote several chapters in a book on lgbt rights around the world titled From Wrongs to Gay Rights, and collaborated closely with organizations like Human Rights Watch, Alternatives-Cameroun, and the Association for the Defense of Homosexuals.

The country doesn’t have a very good track record with lgbt issues. Right at the end of President Obama’s tour, Human Rights Watch published a press release detailing three recent attacks targeting human rights and lgbt activists. Prosecuting more people for gay sex than in any other sub-Saharan African country, and with homosexuality punishable with a prison term of up to five years, Lembembe and other activists in the country had much to work against. Police participate in abuse and torture of lgbt people, and the government and media continually drum up hatred for queer people, seeing them as “unnatural” and “un-African.”

The U.S. Government was quick to issue a press release, saying that “We condemn this terrible act in the strongest terms and urge the Cameroonian authorities to thoroughly and promptly investigate and prosecute those responsible for his death.”

Neela Ghoshal, the senior researcher on LGBT rights at Human Rights Watch, wrote a passionate article about her colleague Lembembe’s passing, describing his attachment to his country and his drive to change it into something better. She ends the article by saying that, if those responsible for Lembembe’s murder are trying to dismantle the lgbt-rights movement in Cameroon, “I don’t know whether Lembembe’s murder will be solved. But I do know that you cannot kill this movement. Lembembe’s legacy will live one. One day lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people will live freely and equally in Cameroon.”

Many have called on the Cameroonian government to investigate Lembembe’s death and comment on the situation, but nothing has been forthcoming as of yet. The government will have to report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September of this year following up on a periodic review in May, where several member nations called on Cameroon to improve its human rights standards, specifically citing the treatment of queer people within the country.

As unfortunate as the situation is, Lembembe is leaving behind a legacy in Cameroon that will hopefully create changes for greater equality not only in the country but in the entire region as well.

Gay Rights Activist in Cameroon Tortured and Killed

Eric Ohena Lembembe Found Dead At Home on July 15

You don’t want to be gay and working for GLBT equality in Cameroon, where homosexuality is punishable by prison terms for up to five years.  According to Human Rights Watch, the country prosecutes more people for gay sex than any other in sub-Saharan Africa.

But Eric Ohena Lembembe was not imprisoned.  Instead, he was tortured with an iron and had his neck and feet broken.  Found dead in his padlocked home by friends who were concerned when he didn’t show up for a scheduled meeting two days prior, his death is regarded as a hate crime. deplored by Human Rights Watch.

He was killed just weeks after issuing a public warning about the threat posed by “anti-gay thugs,” according to Human Rights Watch. He spoke out against the recent break-ins at the offices of groups advocating for gay rights.

Gay Killings Not Uncommon

Lembembe start mobilizing when he saw a sharp increase in anti-gay prosecutions beginning in 2005. His death follows several attacks on LGBT advocates in Cameroon. Assailants torched the headquarters of Alternatives-Cameroon, one of Lembembe’s affiliations on June 26..  It provided HIV services to LGBT people in Douala, the second largest city.

Also in June 2013, human rights lawyer Michel Togue, who represents clients charged with homosexuality, had his legal files and laptop stolen after being robbed. Alice Nikom, another lawyer who represents LGBT clients, has received death threats like Togue.  In 2011, Uganda’s David Kato and South Africa’s lesbian activist Noxolo Nogwaza were killed. And so it continues…

What the U.S. State Dept. & Others Say

The U.S. State Department has released a statement on July 17 about Lembembe’s death saying “we deplore the brutal murder of Lembembe. We condemn this terrible act in the strongest terms and urge the Cameroonian authorities to thoroughly and promptly investigate and prosecute those responsible for his death.” Neela Ghosal, senior LGBT rights researcher at HRW, said “President Biya should break his silence on the wave of homophobic violence in Cameroon and publicly condemn this brutal attack. The Cameroonian authorities’s utter failure to stem homophobic violence sends the message that these attacks can be carried out with impunity. What worries me is that in the previous incidents of homophobic threats or violence, the police have done the basics but it’s never gone beyond taking statements.” It also has other activists in the community worried about their safety.

Lembembe’s Accomplishments

Lembembe also collaborated with The Association for the Defense of Homosexuals (ADEPHO). One of his final projects was the research and launch of a March 2013 report on prosecutions for consensual same-sex conduct. He documented blackmail, arrests, and violence against Cameroon’s gay community.

He was first a journalist and later served as Executive Director of a Yaounde-based human rights organization called CAMFAIDS. He wrote for the Erasing 76 Crimes blog focusing on countries where homosexuality is illegal.

He also contributed several chapters to “From Wrongs to Gay Rights,” a book on the global gay rights movement, released last February. The author of this book, Colin Stewart, praised Lembembe as “a courageous, diligent colleague who worked hard as a reporter to expose the evils that are abroad in Cameroon, even while he worked as an activist to inform the oppressed LGBT people of that nation and to protect their rights.”