It's not safe to be gay or support Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersexual (LGBTI) rights in Cameroon, according to a new report by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
The report, presented Wednesday in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, shows that violence against the LGBTI community and its advocates has increased significantly over the last few years.
Cameroon is one of 38 African countries where homosexuality is still illegal. Violators of section 347 of the country's penal code, which bans "consensual sexual relations between persons of the same sex," face heavy fines and up to five years in jail.
According to FIDH, the prosecution of the LGBTI community has trickled down into society, where homophobic persecution is now rampant. Gay men and women and LGBTI rights activists in Cameroon are at risk of having their homes broken into or burned, the report said. They are also subject to constant threats and intimidation via text message and social media.
Yves Yomb, who runs Alternatives-Cameroun, the country's oldest LGBTI rights group, told VICE News the report substantiates longstanding claims that persecution is on the rise.
"Every time we meet government officials to talk to them about violations of LGBT rights in Cameroon we're told there is no evidence," Yomb said. "This report is evidence."
The report details the case of Eric Ohena Lembembe, an outspoken journalist and gay rights activist who was tortured and killed in his home in July 2013, just weeks after he criticized government inaction over the threat posed by "anti-gay thugs."
Lembembe's neck and feet were broken, and his face, hands, and feet were burned with an iron. The case, which shocked the international community, still hasn't been solved.
"The irregularities and the lack of thoroughness in the legal proceedings in the Eric Ohena Lembembe case prove the indifference of the national judiciary in cases of violence against homosexuals," the FIDH report said.
'Every time we meet government officials to talk to them about violations of LGBT rights in Cameroon we're told there is no evidence. This report is evidence.'
Victor Ndoki, secretary general of national security in Cameroon, defended the government's actions in the Lembembe case.
"The police did everything it was supposed to do in this case," Ndoki told FIDH. "That's why we were very surprised by the international reactions and the direct attacks against the president."
Paris attorney Catherine Daoud, a coauthor of the report, said Lembembe's case is indicative of the dangers routinely faced by Cameroonian activists, who "take many risks" on a daily basis.
Alternatives-Cameroun, which was established in Douala in 2006, has weathered its own share of homophobic hatred. The group's headquarters were torched in 2013 and their official complaint about the incident went nowhere.
Daoud told VICE News that the organization had since "opened up its doors," in an attempt to "minimize" the stigma associated with the group. The center provides legal aid to individuals charged with breaking the country's anti-gay laws and offers HIV/AIDS prevention and screening programs.
Daoud said the group even opened "a bar, where anyone can come and have a drink, including local young people." The goal, he said, is to dispel the prejudice surrounding the LGBTI community by showing that advocates are not "a bunch of weird people who engage in dubious activities."
Yomb said the center was initially considered by many "a place for fags," but the community-targeted outreach — such as the HIV/AIDS screening program — has encouraged more members of the LGBTI community to use the center.
According to FIDH, at least 28 people have been arrested under the country's anti-homosexuality law since 2011.
In January 2013, a court in Cameroon overturned the convictions of two men who were arrested outside a nightclub and sentenced to five years in jail for "looking gay."
The FIDH report accuses Cameroon's Catholic and Muslim communities of fueling the anti-gay sentiment. A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Yaoundé reportedly told FIDH researchers that, "homosexuality is a defect." Simon-Victor Tonye Bakot, the former Archbishop of Yaoundé, was vehemently anti-gay and blamed homosexuals "for the misery in Cameroon and the unemployment of our graduates." He also called same-sex marriage a "crime against humanity." Bakot resigned in 2013 around the same time that Pope Francis told reporters, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
Cameroon's media have carried out their own anti-gay witch-hunt. In 2006, three newspapers published a list of "The top 50 gay public figures." Cameroonian President Paul Biya — who had members of his inner-circle named on the list — has called for people's private lives to be respected but has not repealed the anti-gay law.
In August 2013, a government spokesman told journalists gathered at a press conference that the great majority of Cameroonians condemn homosexuality "because their religious beliefs are incompatible with homosexuality," and said, "the president's duty is to respect the will of the people and to enforce the current law."
The government reiterated its stance in January 2014, declaring it would not repeal a law endorsed by the majority of the people. Cameroon's government declined to comment in response to a VICE News inquiry.
"Perhaps the powers that be think that society would be critical if they removed this section of the penal code," Daoud told VICE News. He added that the government's inaction is "contributing to a climate where homophobic individuals believe they are within their right [to carry out violence]."
Yomb said he hoped the FIDH report would pave the way for improving the rights of the LGBT community in Cameroon, and of the activists who have helped "bring the struggle to light."
Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter: @meloboucho