A court in Cameroon, one of the least gay-tolerant countries in the world, on Tuesday sentenced a man to two years in prison and handed down a suspended one-year jail sentence to an underage youth for homosexuality.
The man, identified as Joseph Ombga, may be released from custody shortly if he pays a fine of 50,000 CFA francs (76 euros) and the same amount in legal expenses, as he has already been detained for almost two years at Yaounde’s central prison, according to the verdict.
A third defendant in the same trial, identified as Seraphon Ntsama, was given “the benefit of the doubt” and acquitted. Ntsama has also been held for almost two years.
Ombga, who had been charged with sex with a minor, was arrested at his home in August 2011 in the company of another man to whom he wanted to sell a porn video, according to his lawyers.
Ntsama and the minor were later detained when they visited him at the police station.
The defendants’ lawyer Alice Nkom, a well-known gay rights activist in Cameroon, told the court the three were being held “arbitrarily”.
“There is no case,” she said.
The condemnations come a few days after Cameroonian rights groups pressed the government to carry out a proper investigation into the gruesome murder of prominent gay rights activist Eric Lembembe, found dead in his home in the capital last week, and friends who found his body said he had been severely tortured.
The government vowed Friday to conduct a full investigation, dismissing fears that the murder would go unpunished.
“There is no conspiracy of state, nor any social plot in Cameroon, which is directed toward homosexuals,” government spokesman and Communication Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary said on state television.
“Many homosexuals live and move freely in Cameroon without being beaten or suffering punishment.”
Lembembe’s lawyers had on Thursday accused the police of botching the investigation, charging that they had “done nothing” to collect potential evidence after the discovery of the body.
The rights groups on Saturday asked President Paul Biya to use the constitution to “take strong measures to stop this wave of hatred and to protect a minority of Cameroonian citizens that is persecuted”.
“The religious authorities, the Cameroonian Roman Catholic Church in particular, take a position on homosexuality in order to incite violence,” their statement charged.
According to a March report co-authored by Human Rights Watch, the Cameroon has prosecuted at least 28 people for same-sex conduct since 2010. Cameroon ranks as one of the most homophobic countries in the world where same-sex relations can be punished with up to five years in prison.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called for Yaounde to end its programme of arbitrary arrests and detentions, but so far without much effect.