The SMS that sent a gay Cameroonian to jail

Roger Jean Claude Mbédé spent 16 months in prison with robbers, killers and other criminals. All he did was click the ‘send’ button on his mobile phone.

By Anne Mireille Nzouankeu, Yaoundé

The 33-year-old Cameroonian still can’t believe what happened. On 28 April 2011, Mbédé was sentenced to 36 months in prison and fined 83,370 CFA francs (about 127 euros) for “homosexual behaviour”. His lawyers immediately appealed the sentence and lodged an application for bail, which was rejected.

Thanks to the tenacity of his lawyers and other human rights organizations, Mbédé made bail on 16 July 2012. Yet this came only after more than ten rejected applications. “Finally free! After more than a year in prison,” he could recently be heard exclaiming.

One click, 16 months
It all began when Mbédé was working on his Master’s degree in educational philosophy. Referring to the woman who took care of him, he says: “My nourrice took me to meet ‘F. N.’ to apply for a job. After that, I stayed in touch with the gentleman.”

Four months of a strictly platonic relationship went by until Mbédé decided to reveal the feelings he had developed for his friend. F.N., who holds a high position in the Cameroonian presidency, received word of those feelings – which were more than platonic – via SMS.

Mbédé well remembers what unfolded once the message was received. “On 2 March 2011, Mr F. N. called me and asked me to meet him at his residence,” he says. “I was greeted by a policeman, but was not worried because the house is constantly guarded by the police. He asked me if I was the author of the SMS that F.N. received. I replied yes. Two policemen then took me away and locked me into a cell at the secretariat of defence. I was interrogated for a week without really knowing what was going on.”

He continues: “On 9 March, I appeared before the state prosecutor, who signed a committal order transferring me to prison on the same day. The following morning, I was tried and sentenced after the third hearing,” the young man recalls.

The criminalization of homosexuality
Homosexual acts do carry a prison sentence in Cameroon. The judges rely on Article 347 of the Penal Code which criminalizes homosexuality. Penalties range from six months to five years of jail time and a fine between 20,000 and 200,000 CFA francs (30 to 305 euros).

As a result of Article 347, many Cameroonians like Mbédé have been incarcerated – alongside criminals. “The conditions in prison are very bad,” he recalls. “There are not enough beds and the food is insufficient and badly cooked. With the overcrowding, diseases like tuberculosis, diarrhoea and skins infections are rampant. Moreover, there is a lot of violence, as nearly 95 percent of the inmates take various drugs.”

He adds: “But that wasn’t the most difficult thing to deal with because of the injustice I felt victim of. I do not belong in prison because I didn’t commit any theft or murder. What’s worse is that even the prisoners rejected me. They sent a petition to the warden saying that they could not live with a fag. Wherever I went, I was called names and sometimes assaulted.”

The young Cameroonian man points above his eye to a scar from fighting in prison.

Legal aid and sympathy
Immediately after his arrest, Mbédé was deserted by his family. During his first court hearing, he was all alone and lost. His case drew the sympathy from human rights activist and lawyer Michel Togué, who volunteered his services for the young man’s legal defence.

At the same time, the lawyer introduced Mbédé to Lambert Lamba, the coordinator of the Project for Assistance and Guidance of Homosexual Minorities (PAEMH). The project provides legal and material assistance to people imprisoned for homosexuality. As soon as she heard about the case, Alice Nkom, another Cameroonian lawyer and renowned gay rights activist, also volunteered to legally represent Roger Jean Claude.

“The PAEMH was very supportive. The project gave me moral, legal and material assistance. Lambert was the one who used to bring me food and clothes in prison. Without the support from the project, my condition would have been much worse,” says Mbédé.

Now what?
After all he went through, Mbédé has only one choice: finding a job. He explains that cannot depend on his parents anymore.

“My family members told me to pretend as if they no longer exist,” he says. “My father told me that I was no longer his son and that if he had to choose between a madman and me, he would choose the madman.”

For now, he depends on the support of others. In fact, it was Nkom who paid the 50,000 CFA francs (76 euros) required for his bail.

Mbédé is scheduled to appear at the appeals court on 20 August, where he hopes to have his sentence overturned.

A propos nzouankeu

Bonjour Je suis Anne Mireille Nzouankeu, journaliste camerounaise. Je m'intéresse aux questions de développement, droits de l'homme, environnement et santé. Je suis lauréate de plusieurs prix journalistiques parmi lesquels -3ème prix Afrique du Lorenzo Natali awards 2011, le plus prestigieux prix journalistique dans le domaine des droits de l'Homme -Finaliste du Dabra 2011, un prix international qui récompense les meilleurs journalistes africains dans le domaine de l'économie -Lauréate du projet Twenty Ten, une collaboration entre World Press Photo, FreeVoice, Africa Media Online et Lokaalmondiaal soutenue financièrement par la Dutch Postcode Lottery. Ce projet a permis à plus d’une centaine de journalistes africains originaires de 34 pays de rédiger des articles en profondeur sur le football africain et sur l’impact de la Coupe du Monde 2010 sur le continent.
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