Cameroon gay rights lawyer seeks US refuge

A Cameroonian lawyer who has received death threats for defending gays and lesbians in a country where homosexuality is outlawed has sought refuge with his family in the United States.

In his home country, homosexuality is associated with "sorcery and black magic," said Yaounde lawyer Michel Togue, amid rising concern by international rights groups about the treatment of gays in many African nations.

"Homophobia is on the rise, and intolerance is growing," he told AFP, recalling one case where a gay person was sentenced to "six months in prison just for declaring their love in a text-message."

Many African nations outlaw homosexuality. In Uganda, proposed legislation would see the death penalty imposed for certain homosexual acts.

In such an atmosphere, Togue has gained a reputation, along with his colleague Alice Nkom, of being a tireless defender of gay rights cases.

Earlier this year, two young men identified only as Franky and Jonas, were acquitted on appeal, after an international outcry was sparked by their conviction and five-year jail sentence for having gay sex. The two have now been released and are living in secrecy for their protection in Yaounde.

But now Togue and his family have become the target of threats, which have caused him to flee to the United States.

He has won backing from non-governmental organizations, including All Out and the Robert Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, and was even praised for his work by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton at a State Department reception the day before she stepped down.

Clinton hailed Togue as "a human rights lawyer from Cameroon who has fought tirelessly to defend LGBT persons with support from this fund, and we greatly applaud his commitment and his courage."

Clinton consistently pushed the message, during her time as secretary, that "human rights are gay rights and gay rights are human rights." The fund she referred to was one she created in 2011 to promote and protect the human rights of gay people around the world.

But the threats against Togue that began in Cameroon have not stopped on US soil, where he continues to be subjected to menacing phone calls and text messages.

"They say they are going to kidnap my children, that they'll turn them into queers. I feel very vulnerable," he said. His family has been in the United States since November, and he joined them in January.

While his wife and children are requesting asylum, Togue is hoping to return soon to Cameroon, insisting "it would be cowardly to give up, it's my duty to defend human rights and to contribute to a more tolerant Cameroon."

Cameroon, along with Uganda, is one of the most repressive nations in Africa in terms of gay rights.

"Authorities routinely arrest, detain and torture individuals because of their real or perceived sexual orientation. In fact, these violations have increased since the mid-2000s," Amnesty International's central Africa researcher Godfrey Byaruhanga wrote in a report about Cameroon last month.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has also called for Yaounde to end its program of arbitrary arrests and detentions.

Under the country's penal code, same-sex relations have been punishable since 1972 by up to five years in jail. In 2011, there were 14 such cases sentenced before the courts.

Togue told AFP he had had a lot of support from the French embassy in Cameroon, but the United States "was the first to react" and welcome his family temporarily.

Although the State Department could not talk about his individual case, Togue has met with officials to discuss gay rights.

"I can confirm that Cameroonian lawyer and human rights advocate, Michel Togue, met with State Department colleagues to discuss the human rights situation facing the LGBT community in Cameroon," Aaron Jenson, spokesman for the department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor said.

In late January, a jailed gay Cameroonian asked French President Francois Hollande to help him get freed, in a letter published by All Out to coincide with a visit to Paris by Cameroonian President Paul Biya.

"Mr Hollande, here in Cameroon I'm considered a criminal because I'm gay. I need your help to convince Mr Biya to reverse my three-year jail sentence," Roger Jean-Claude Mbede said.

Biya said Wednesday after talks with Hollande: "We don't have a human rights problem... Cameroonians are among the freest Africans."

But on homosexuality, Biya added "mindsets can evolve in one way or another... but for now it's a crime."

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