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(Yaoundé) - The Cameroonian authorities should drop the charges against two transgender youth rather than appealing their case to the Supreme Court, four human rights organizations said today. Jonas K. and Franky D. are being prosecuted on what the appeals court has already ruled were trumped-up charges of homosexual conduct, the groups said in a letter to the Yaoundé prosecutor today.
The five organizations - Alternatives-Cameroun, Association for the Defense of Homosexuals (ADEFHO), Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), Human Rights Watch, and the International Gay and Lesbian Association - asked the prosecutor to withdraw a motion challenging an Appeals Court decision that overruled Jonas's and Franky's conviction.
"An appeals court has already determined there is no evidence against Jonas and Franky," said Stéphane Koche, vice president at ADEFHO. "Why is the Cameroonian government wasting its time persecuting two innocent young people?"
The organizations sent their letter on the occasion of the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHoT), celebrated around the world by human rights activists calling for an end to discrimination, hatred, and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people.
The two transgender youth, who identify as women, were arrested in July 2011 by police who stopped their vehicle and saw that they were dressed in women's clothing. Police claimed that Jonas, Franky, and a third person were "groping each other's genitals" in the car, which the accused denied. The prosecutor did not present any eyewitnesses and relied on confessions that Jonas and Franky made in police custody and later said were coerced.
A trial court convicted them of homosexual conduct in November 2011 in what defense lawyers described as a legal charade. The judge suggested that because they testified that they were drinking Bailey's liqueur the night of the arrest - which the judge considered a "women's drink" - they must be homosexual.
On January 7 the Central Region Appeals Court, acknowledging the lack of evidence, overturned the conviction. The appeals court reasoned that the lower court had improperly relied upon confessions that Jonas and Franky made under duress in police custody and that the prosecution failed to present any witnesses who had actually seen the alleged offense take place. It also found that even if there were truth to the police report that the vehicle's occupants were "groping" one another, this might legally be regarded as "attempted homosexuality," but not "homosexuality," which is understood by Cameroonian law as requiring penetration.
"When the prosecution can't even be bothered to present eyewitnesses, it's clear that the case is lacking in substance," said Neela Ghoshal, LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"This case looks like an ideologically motivated attack on sexual and gender minorities, based on a discriminatory law, and should never have been in the courts to begin with."
Following the appeals court decision, Jonas and Franky were released in January from Yaoundé's Kondengui prison, where they had been imprisoned for a year and a half. On January 30, President Paul Biya, at a news conference in Paris, referred to their release as evidence of "progress." Biya told journalists, "We have recently learned that people convicted of homosexuality have been released, so there is a change of mind, do not despair."
However, the public prosecutor's office had already filed a motion, on January 10, to challenge the Appeals Court's decision at the Supreme Court. The transgender women's defense lawyers only learned of the challenge in March.
"Biya is trying to convince the international community that things are improving for LGBTI people in Cameroon, while at the same time, the state is aggressively attacking LGBTI rights," said Dominique Menoga, founder at the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), an advocacy organization that seeks to promote LGBTI rights. "This is hypocrisy at the highest levels."
At the May 2013 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Cameroon at the United Nations Human Rights Council, 15 UN member states made recommendations to Cameroon related to its obligations to uphold basic human rights for LGBTI people. States recommended that Cameroon decriminalize same-sex conduct, protect LGBTI people from violence, and adopt measures to eliminate social prejudices and stigmatization on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
"The numerousrecommendations made to Cameroon regarding its obligation to protect the rights of LGBTI people shows the extent to which Cameroon is perceived as an extremely repressive country in terms of gender identity and sexual orientation," said Patricia Curzi , Liaison Officer at the UN International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA).
The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Cameroon told states parties to the UN Human Rights Council that Cameroon needs "more time" to make progress on LGBTI rights - a response that offers little comfort to Jonas and Franky as well as other Cameroonians who are currently in prison because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
"As transgender people, Jonas and Franky are guilty of nothing more than having a gender identity that most Cameroonians don't understand," said Yves Yomb, executive director at Alternatives-Cameroun. "On the occasion of the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia, we call on our government to accept UPR recommendations to end homophobic and transphobic discrimination, and simply to let people like Jonas and Franky live their lives in peace."