Donors free 11 LGBT prisoners in Cameroon. Next goal: 7 more

Only 13 months ago, a visitor to the Central Prison in Yaoundé, Cameroon, counted 11 inmates serving time for nothing other than whom they loved. None of them had been convicted of anything but violations of the nation’s cruel anti-homosexuality law, Article 347-1 of the penal code, which provides for up to five years in prison for same-sex love.

Fast forward to the present. All 11 have been set free — a victory for human rights defenders in Cameroon and for the hundreds of generous donors who contributed funds to help the 11 victims of state-sponsored homophobia.

Illustration depicting “Ford” and “Bill”, two of the 11 prisoners who were released early through Project Not Alone 2021. (Illustration by Vincent Kyabayinze, East Africa Visual Artists / EAVA Artists)

This victory was achieved by a human rights campaign called Project Not Alone 2021 (in French, Projet Pas Seul 2021, or PPS21). It is organized by the Erasing 76 Crimes news site with support from the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, a California-based tax-exempt charity that supports LGBTQ rights advocacy journalism, including Erasing 76 Crimes, RightsAfrica.com and NoStringsNG.

“Ford” and “Bill” relaxed after their release from prison in February 2022. (Stéphane A. photo)

In Project Not Alone, activist journalists in Cameroon interview and write articles about LGBTI prisoners, donors contribute money to purchase supplemental food for them and pay their fines, and an activist attorney works pro bono on their behalf.

If Article 347-1 were repealed, that would eliminate any need for efforts such as PPS21, but the law has strong support in the homophobic society of Cameroon.

Steeves Winner, an activist reporter for Erasing 76 Crimes, says that, in the meantime, “we encounter new cases of arrests and violence every day, hence the importance of continuing to work for the release of convicted LGBTI people”.

Winner began assisting LGBTI prisoners in Cameroon years ago, when he was a volunteer at the LGBTI rights group Camfaids.  In mid 2018, at his initiative, Erasing 76 Crimes launched Project Not Alone. Through the project, three prisoners in the capital city of Yaoundé received food deliveries to supplement the one meal a day that Cameroonian inmates receive.

Later that year, attorney Stéphane A. coordinator of the legal advocacy group Défenseurs Sans Frontières (DSF), pointed out that under Cameroonian law prisoners who pay their fines are released three to six months earlier than prisoners whose fines remain unpaid. As a result, if donors contribute enough money to pay LGBTI prisoners’ fines, those prisoners win early release.

Project Not Alone promptly invited readers to contribute money to pay prisoners’ fines. By early 2019, the project had collected enough money to make food deliveries, give one prisoner a needed set of prescription eyeglasses, and pay the fines of three gay prisoners in Muslim-majority northern Cameroon. All three won early release by January 2019.

Next, Project Not Alone focused on eastern Cameroon. There, in the summer of 2020, two lesbians and a trans woman won early release from the Bertoua prison after donors paid their fines.

When Project Not Alone returned to Yaoundé last year, Winner found that 11 LGBTI inmates at the Kondengui prisons were qualified for help.

“We were distressed that Cameroon had arrested so many people for no good reason,” said Colin Stewart, editor of Erasing 76 Crimes. “We worried that, if we tried to help all 11 prisoners, we might be biting off more than we could chew. After all, we had helped no more than three in any previous year.”

But Winner, DSF and the PPS21 donors were up to the task.

All 11 LGBTI prisoners received deliveries of food, plus toilet paper, soap and bleach to help them cope with unsanitary prison conditions. Donors paid the fines of all 11 so they could qualify for early release. And DSF provided legal representation for three detainees who had been waiting for trial for more than a year.

Below are the stories of the prisoners who were helped by PPS21. Pseudonyms are used for their safety.

Illustration depicts “Roro” and “Gold”, who were freed early from prison in May because donors contributed money to pay their fines. (Illustration by Vincent Kyabayinze, East Africa Visual Artists / EAVA Artists)

Evan and Kane were betrayed to police by Kane’s father, who disapproved of their loving relationship. They were sentenced to two years in prison, or 28 months if they couldn’t pay their combined $819 in fines. The two men’s sentences would have lasted till September 2021, but PPS21 donors paid the fines for them. They were released on May 17, 2021.

Roro and Gold, a lesbian couple, were turned in to police by a horny man who was frustrated that Roro wasn’t attracted to him. They were sentenced to 18 months in prison, or 22 months if they couldn’t pay their combined $730 in fines. The two women’s sentences would have lasted until October 2021, but PPS21 donors paid the fines for them. They were released on June 23, 2021.

On that day, they talked briefly with an activist attorney outside the prison gates. Roro told him, “We didn’t realize that such people still existed, who will help those they don’t even know. It’s astonishing.” The couple’s plan after prison was to do small-scale farming and set up a small business — perhaps a refreshment stall or a stand selling clothes and beauty products.

Medgar and Dylan, a middle-aged gay couple, were living together discreetly until they got into an argument in late 2019 that attracted the attention of neighbors. The neighbors called police and soon the two men had been arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to 24 months in prison, or 27 months if they could not pay a combined $886 in fines. When Dylan was interviewed in prison, it was obvious that he needed eyeglasses. He already had a prescription for them, but had no money to get the prescription filled. Donors contributed funds both to pay the men’s fines and to purchase Dylan’s $164 eyeglasses After their fines were paid, they were released from prison in November 2021.

Ford and Bill were living together happily in a luxurious apartment until nosy neighbors called the cops on them in March 2020.  They were promptly arrested and jailed on charges of violating the anti-homosexuality law. Then it seemed that police and prosecutors forgot about them. When activist reporter Steeves Winner interviewed them in the spring of 2021, they had no attorney and had been held without trial for more than a year at Yaoundé Central Prison, where inmates must survive in dirty, crowded cells with only one small, poorly cooked meal per day. After donors learned about their plight, they contributed money to pay the expenses of pro-bono legal defense by the activist attorneys of Défenseurs Sans Frontières (DSF).  A motion filed by DSF set them free on bail in late summer.  That action caught the attention of the local prosecutor, who brought them to trial in October 2021. This time, they were convicted, fined $897 and sentenced to two years in prison, but with credit for time already served. With the help of donors who paid their bail, their fines and their legal expenses, Ford and Bill were set free on March 19, 2022.

 

Police arrested “Nick” and “Allen” after they complained to their boss that he stopped paying them after discovering they were gay. (Illustration by Vincent Kyabayinze, East Africa Visual Artists/EAVA Artists)

 

After their release from Kondengui prison, "Nick" and "Allen" sat for a moment and Allen broke into tears of joy. (Erasing 76 Crimes photo)
After their release from Kondengui prison in February 2022, “Nick” and “Allen” sat for a moment and Allen broke into tears of joy. (Stéphane A. photo)

Allen and Nick both worked at the same company. They fell in love there, but kept quiet about their relationship.  All went well until their boss spotted them together at a bar and realized that they were a gay couple.  The boss didn’t confront them; he simply stopped paying them.  Months passed before Allen and Nick realized that they were the only employees receiving no pay.  When they complained to the boss, he called police and had them arrested. On Oct. 19, 2020, they were sentenced to 18 months in prison plus an additional five months if they did not pay $894 in fines, Through PPS21, donors paid their fines and they were released on Feb. 10, 2022.

After they were released, they planned to remain self-employed and open a small business such as a food stall. “Because with this experience of going to jail for claiming our salary, we are not sure if we will ever work for someone again,” Allen said.

Nick had no fond memories of their year and a half in prison.

“Life in prison is a nightmare for people who have been convicted of homosexuality,” he said. “They are twice as despised as the worst criminals. They have to live in hiding and suffer horrors not only from other prisoners but also from prison guards. Sometimes their meals are stolen. They are often subjected to ill treatment.”

“Nadine” in August 2021 while she was out on bail.

Nadine, a trans woman, age 30, fell in love with a 20-year-old girl. In February 2020, after the girl’s parents lodged a complaint with police, Nadine was arrested on homosexuality charges. Lacking any legal advocate, Nadine remained in a cell without a trial for more than a year. Donors to PPS21 and an activist attorney got her out on bail in the late summer of 2021. In October, she finally was put on trial, convicted and sentenced.  Her sentence was supposed to last until June 2022, but donors paid both her fine and her bail, so she was released on Nov. 20, 2021.

Financial summary

Donors contributed a total of $8,801 to PPS21, with all donations made via the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation.

Expenses were as follows:

$4,815 — Payment of fines and court costs, including bail. The bail money was returned after the defendants showed up for trial and then was reused to pay the fines of Nadine, Ford and Bill.

$2,779 — Expenses of pro-bono legal representation, including copying fees and court filing fees.

$833 — Three deliveries of food and hygiene items to the 11 prisoners.

$374 — Eyeglasses for Dylan ($164) and clothes for Nadine, Ford and Bill to wear at their court appearances ($210).

What’s next?

Stéphane A. from DSF and reporters for Erasing 76 Crimes next set about examining the cases of 12 LGBT detainees who are currently in Yaoundé prisons.

Five of the 12 have been dropped as potential beneficiaries in the new PPS22 program  because they are in prison for reasons other than simply homosexuality. (For example, two of the gay prisoners are accused of theft.  Another is accused of sexual harassment of a minor.)

Fundraising for PPS22 will begin soon.  Watch for articles about them in the weeks ahead.

Or, if you don’t want to wait and are ready to help immediately, donate now via:

  • PayPal or
  • By sending a check to St. Paul’s Foundation, 21 Marseille, Laguna Niguel CA 92677 USA.) Please write “Project Not Alone” on the memo line.

This article was revised on June 29 to indicate that seven detainees will be included in Project Not Alone 2022 rather than possibly nine, as stated in the earlier version.

 

 

 

Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, and editor / publisher of Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]

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