Africa

Cameroon lawyer beaten up for defending gay man

Click the image to see the Indiegogo campaign seeking contributions for Cornelius Fonya's defense fund.

Click the image to see the Indiegogo campaign seeking contributions for Cornelius Fonya’s defense fund.

A group of assailants ambushed attorney Walter Atoh last month outside a Cameroon hotel where he stayed for safety after receiving messages threatening him with death if he did not stop seeking the release of a man imprisoned for homosexuality.

Atoh has resolved to continue the legal defense of the prisoner and hopes that LGBTI rights advocates will support the effort through donations to his client’s defense fund.

Cornelius Fonya, 35, of Limbe, Cameroon, is serving a nine-year prison sentence after his conviction in a trial marred by improprieties. Atoh, his attorney, is one of the few lawyers in Cameroon willing to represent LGBTI defendants.

If you care about fair treatment for victimized LGBTI people worldwide, please contribute to the costs of his legal representation.

This is how Atoh reported the incident to the State Counsel in Kumba:

At about 10:20 p.m. on Nov. 1, Atoh was taking a walk around his hotel when he was ambushed in the dark by unknown men wearing dark glasses. They kicked, slapped and beat him several times on his face and abdomen.  “I was only rescued by the light of an oncoming car and some good Samaritans who heard my loud cry,” and chased away the assailants, Atoh said.

As they fled, the assailants shouted at him, “You and ya family no go get peace for this country.”

Atoh said the assault was obviously linked to a series of anonymous phone calls he has received that warned him to stop representing Fonya.

The State Counsel referred Atoh’s complaint to investigators.

Atoh was treated at a local hospital, where he was X-rayed and treated.  A doctor’s certificate, issued the next day, instructed Atoh to take off two weeks to recover from injuries to his chest and abdomen.

Barrister Walter Atoh (Barrister Atoh Walter M. Tchemi, as his name is written in Cameroon)

Attorney Walter Atoh (Barrister Atoh Walter M. Tchemi, as his name is written in Cameroon)

The ongoing death threats target both Atoh and his family. In the summer, he fled to London for safety, but now has returned to Cameroon.

He is appealing Fonya’s conviction on the basis of procedural irregularities that marred the trial. Those irregularities included the admission of medical/legal documents that were presented by prosecution witnesses but had never introduced during police investigations.

Fonya’s sexual encounter with the young man was apparently consensual, but the man’s family denies it. Fonya was convicted of same-sex sexual relations, not of rape.

To raise funds for Fonya’s legal expenses, Atoh launched an Indiegogo campaign that will run for five more days. So far, it has raised $675 out of $8,000 needed for expenses such as:

  • Map of coast Cameroon shows the locations of Limbe, Buea and Kumba. (Map courtesy of Wikipedia)

    Map of coast Cameroon shows the locations of Limbe, Buea and Kumba. (Map courtesy of Wikipedia)

    Costs of preparing and filing necessary legal documents in the case.

  • Cost of court requirements, such as the paperwork required to allow Fonya to appear in court each time his case is discussed. Atoh notes that a series of adjournments frequently occur in Cameroonian courts because only an incomplete panel of judges shows up when hearings are scheduled. (“Then
    you as counsel and your team are forced to drive back, then return on the new date for a hearing — and on that said date the same will happen,” Atoh said.)
  • Two-way transportation by car from Atoh’s home in Kumba to the court of appeal in Buea.
  • Food and lodging at a moderate-priced hotel in Buea before each court session so Atoh won’t risk arriving in court late after a drive from Kumba.
  • Helping Fonya purchase medications and food, when necessary, because his family members have abandoned him, having judged that his actions were abominable.
Cameroon's location in Africa

Cameroon’s location in Africa

Atoh has been successful in his defense of LGBTI Cameroonians in several previous cases. C.O., a gay man, was released on bail last year and then fled to Italy, where he is seeking asylum. A lesbian, E.E., similarly fled from Cameroon while she was out on bail awaiting action on homosexuality charges. She is currently in the United States, seeking asylum. A few years ago, Atoh arranged for the chief prosecutor to dismiss charges against three gay men, by arguing successfully that the investigation of their case had been conducted improperly.

Fonya was convicted in late 2013 of same-sex relations with a man variously reported to be 14, 16, 19 or more than 20 years old. Atoh says the man appears to be more than 20 years old, but he submitted a fraudulent birth certificate that put his age as 16. In its verdict, the court relied on that evidence as accurate, Atoh said.

In Cameroon, the maximum sentence for same-sex relations between adults is five years, but that maximum is doubled for same-sex relations involving someone between the ages of 16 and 21.

In March 2015, faced with continuing death threats, Atoh and his wife left their home and started sleeping in a hotel room. She left Cameroon for London in March. Atoh joined her in August. Despite the risk, Atoh has now returned to Cameroon to pursue the case.

Courtyard scene at Buea Central Prison. (Photo courtesy of VoicesofAfricaMobile via YouTube)

Courtyard scene at Buea Central Prison. (Photo courtesy of VoicesofAfricaMobile via YouTube)

Fonya’s imprisonment should be treated as a human rights case, Atoh said. He is currently held at Buea Central Prison, where prisoners in overcrowded cells receive only one meal a day of poorly prepared, starchy food. They receive 4.4 ounces of soap every six months.

“Cornelius hasn’t got money to pay lawyers for his case and his case is very complicated,” Atoh said. “Consequently he needs support from humanitarian-minded persons. I can’t do that alone as an individual.”

Atoh has received no funding from any organizations, he said. That means he is dependent on the success of the fundraising campaign on Indiegogo.

Click the image to see the Indiegogo campaign seeking contributions for Cornelius Fonya's defense fund.

Click the image to see the Indiegogo campaign seeking contributions for Cornelius Fonya’s defense fund.

With one exception, Fonya has been behind bars since Oct. 29, 2012, when a mob seized him, hauled him to the police station, and accused him of same-sex activity.

Before his trial, Fonya posted money for bail and was released. But he was re-arrested after the youth’s mother complained to the judge that her son had gone “mad” because of the sexual encounter.

For more information, see the article “Cameroon: Gay prisoner’s attorney defies death threats.”

8 thoughts on “Cameroon lawyer beaten up for defending gay man

  1. In as much i appreciate the good job our attorney is doing to liberate a human soul, I will like to support through psychological evaluation and awareness to the court on understanding the biological, social and disease concept of gender dysphoria referred to in the past as gender identity disorder. In a nutshell, it is a mental health situation that needs to be addressed and victim be referred for treatment rather than imprisonment. Please I am willing to make that case as well as offer the victim a free comprehensive psychological evaluation and treatment plan as well as give some psychoeducation to the court that may lead to victim being referred for treatment at centre jamot under my arrangements with colleagues on the ground and psycho intervention strategies. To contact me is easy. Go to facebook and type Association of Psychological and Psychiatric Services for Cameroon (APPSCAM). It has just been recently legalized by territorial administration in Douala and now undergoing final legalization by public health. It is our wish that we open doors this 2016.

    Like

    • Dear Dr. Santos,

      I don’t believe that gay men or lesbians are victims of a disorder — a position that the World Health Organization has shared since 1990. Conversion therapy / reparative therapy have been shown to be both ineffective and harmful, but perhaps even that sort of psychological evaluation and treatment might very well be preferable to imprisonment.

      Thank you for making that offer. I will pass it along to Barrister Atoh Walter M. Tchemi for consideration.

      — Colin Stewart, editor/publisher of this blog

      Like

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