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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Prominent Gay Rights Activist Is Found Dead in Cameroon

An Amnesty International report, from January, on rights abuses in Cameroon.

Eric Ohena Lembembe, a prominent activist in Cameroon for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, was found dead in his apartment in the capital of Yaoundé, soon after he wrote about attacks in the country on organizations that support homosexuals, Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Tuesday.

The rights group, which has collaborated with Mr. Lembembe on reports, said his body was discovered by friends who had gone to his home after they had been unable to reach him by telephone for several days.

His front door was padlocked on the outside, but through the window they could see his body on the bed, and alerted the police, who broke down the door. According to one friend, the Human Rights Watch statement said, Mr. Lembembe’s neck and feet appeared to have been broken, and his face, hands and feet had been burned with an iron.

“We don’t know who killed Eric Lembembe, or why he was killed, but one thing is clear: The Cameroonian authorities’ utter failure to stem homophobic violence sends the message that these attacks can be carried out with impunity,” Neela Ghoshal, a senior L.G.B.T. rights researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in the statement.

As part of his activism, Mr. Lembembe was an author and a writer about issues affecting the L.G.B.T. community.

In his last blog entry this month for a Web site to which he contributed, Erasing 76 Crimes, Mr. Lembembe described attacks on groups that support gays and lesbians, the latest of which targeted the Access Center of Alternatives-Cameroon.

“At about 7 a.m. on June 26, the staff discovered flames coming from the office of paramedics/psychosocial counselors. Firefighters did not respond to the blaze, nor did neighbors. The center was consumed by the fire. Although no one was killed, most of the equipment (desks, chairs, computers, fans, patients’ medical records, cooking utensils, etc..) was completely destroyed,” Franz Mananga, a director of the center, was quoted as saying in Mr. Lembembe’s report.

“Cameroonian officials show no signs that they are aware of the problem. No one has denounced the attacks. No one has visited the scenes of the fire and the burglaries,” Mr. Lembembe wrote in the post, published on July 5.

76 Crimes monitors the human toll of anti-gay and anti-LGBT laws and the struggle to repeal them in 76 countries.

Mr. Lemembe also spoke out about other attacks in a Human Rights Watch statement published on July 1. Ten days before the June 26 arson attack on Alternative-Cameroun, he wrote, assailants broke into the Yaoundé office of a prominent human rights lawyer, Michel Togué, stealing confidential information, and on June 1, a headquarters of the Central African Human Rights Defenders Network (Réseau de Défenseurs des Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale, or Redhac) was burglarized.

“There is no doubt: antigay thugs are targeting those who support equal rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” Mr. Lemembe said in the Human Rights Watch statement. “Unfortunately, a climate of hatred and bigotry in Cameroon, which extends to high levels in government, reassures homophobes that they can get away with these crimes.”

Mr. Lembembe’s death was mourned by people involved in rights and social justice groups, including Eileen C. Donahue, the United States ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council, and Wilson Cruz, a spokesperson for GLAAD.

Cameroon is one of 38 African countries that criminalize homosexuality, said a report in June by Amnesty International, which also produced a video about rights abuses in Cameroon. As my colleague Adam Nossiter wrote last month, arrests of gay men, and long and abusive imprisonments, are regularly reported there, among other places in Africa.

Two of the organizations mentioned in Mr. Lemembe’s Erasing 76 Crimes blog post, Alternatives-Cameroun and Association for the Defense of Gays and Lesbians, were among the authors of an extensive report in March that noted that Cameroon prosecutes people for consensual same-sex conduct more aggressively than almost any country in the world.

The other contributors to the March report, the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS, of which Mr. Lembembe was executive director, and Human Rights Watch - said they found that at least 28 people have been prosecuted for same-sex conduct in Cameroon since 2010. Most cases are marked by grave human rights violations, including torture, forced confessions, denial of access to legal counsel and discriminatory treatment by law enforcement and judicial officials, it said.

It included 10 case studies of arrests and prosecutions under an article of Cameroon’s penal code, which punishes “sexual relations between persons of the same sex” with up to five years in prison.

“Dozens of Cameroonians do jail time solely because they are suspected of being gay or lesbian,” it said.

Follow Christine Hauser on Twitter @christineNYT.