Alice Nkom is a Cameroonian lawyer with an imposing presence, but her country’s minister of justice is less impressed; he wants her struck off the professional register. Advocates in Cameroon have said she should be killed.
Defending men or women accused of homosexuality, is not a popular cause in central Africa. Threats arrive by email and telephone. The situation, Nkom warns, is becoming more dangerous.
The Cameroon government has introduced a bill to the national assembly that would give formal, political backing to section 347 of the country’s penal code that criminalises consensual sex between adults of the same gender.
"It’s getting worse," Nkom told the Guardian during a visit to London. "These laws are illegal – the declaration of human rights is part of our constitution – but the judges still apply them. It’s very difficult to prove you have had sex. Under the procedural code you cannot be put in jail unless caught in delecto flagrante.
"But they always put people accused of homosexuality in jail straight away. People are targeted because they wear makeup or looked effeminate. One client was given a three-year sentence because he wrote a text message. It’s a very corrupt environment and people get paid for informing on others."
No one knows the true numbers. Punishment for those found guilty is a sentence of between six months and five years as well as fines. Detainees are sometimes tortured in police stations until they confess, Nkom maintains; victims are beaten on the soles of their feet.
Scores of people are imprisoned every year in Cameroon under the regulations. Conditions inside are miserable. The main jail in the capital, Yaounde, was built for 600 but now contains 4,000 inmates. "Unless you buy food from the guards," she said, "you starve. For those whose are homosexual their life is made worse."
Nkom, who had been a lawyer for 40 years, began her work in 2003 after she met four young men who had returned from Paris. "I knew they were gay. I told them that homosexuality was a crime and to be careful. They were shocked.
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