A Cameroon man jailed for sending a loving text message to another man has died after his family withdrew him from medical treatment, his lawyers have told the press.
Roger Jean-Claude Mbede, 34, is reported to have died on Friday, January 9, of health complications surrounding a failure to have proper treatment for a hernia. Mbede had been receiving hospital care for the hernia but his family, who seem to have been given the power to discontinue his care, decided that he as a gay man was not worthy of being saved. ”His family said he was a curse for them and that we should let him die,” Mbede’s lawyer is quoted as saying.
Mbede was arrested in March 2011, after sending a text message to another man which reportedly read “I’m very much in love with you.” When that text message was shown to the authorities, Mbede was convicted to a three year jail term despite a lack of evidence that Mbede had ever committed any offense. Mbede, who had suffered ill health while awaiting sentencing, said during his incarceration:
“I am not sure I can put up with the anti-gay attacks and harassment I underwent at the hands of fellow inmates and prison authorities on account of my perceived and unproven sexual orientation. The justice system in this country is just so unfair.”
Mbede’s story went viral, with rights agencies across the globe designating him a “prisoner of conscience.”
While Uganda and Nigeria have received a great deal of attention for their anti-gay laws, Cameroon is known as having one of the highest conviction rates for gay people. The state’s law bans same-sex sexual acts under Section 347 of the penal code. It proscribes a penalty of up to 5 years imprisonment and a potential fine between 20,000 to 200,000 CFD.
Unsurprisingly, Cameroon’s infamous jail conditions did Mbede no favors and in July 2012 he developed a hernia for which he was granted a provisional release. An appeals court upheld his original conviction and in December 2012 Mbede was sent back to prison.
At the time of his incarceration his family, which is on record as saying they wanted to rid Mbede of homosexuality, largely disowned him. That they now may have blocked Mbede from receiving vital hospital treatment has sparked outrage, with Neela Ghashal of Human Rights Watch calling on Cameroon’s authorities to investigate Mbede’s death and whether he was illegally barred from receiving medical treatment.
“Roger was a courageous man who became an accidental activist after he was arrested simply for expressing his love for another man,” Ghoshal is quoted as saying.
One thing is clear here: had Cameroon’s draconian laws not intruded so violently into Mbede’s personal life and then sent him to prison for no other reason than his expressing love for someone of the same-sex, Mbede may never have sustained the injury that caused his eventually fatal condition or, at the very least, he would have been able to seek proper treatment.
Mbede’s story serves as an example of how Cameroon’s anti-homosexuality laws can devastate lives. In a report entitled Guilty by Association and released in March 2013, Human Rights Watch attempted to draw attention to this fact. The report notes that Cameroon’s authorities very rarely scrutinize offenses surrounding homosexuality and that people can be convicted based on little to no evidence. The report also outlines how the law is abused so that people could be removed from public life, and that the anti-homosexuality law also spawns cases of bribery and violence.
As many nations in the world take steps toward recognizing the rights of LGBT people, many Sub-Saharan African nations appear to be taking steps the other way, actively criminalizing their LGBT populations and, like in Nigeria’s case, seeking new ways to devastate the community. How can this be stopped?
There’s no easy answer to this kind of mistreatment, but we can start at home. It is certainly true that religious conservatives, finding their anti-gay crusade losing ground in the US and places like the UK, have begun exporting their anti-gay politics to Africa and certain European nations where it appears to marry up well with colonial laws or archaic anti-LGBT sensibilities. Scott Lively is one example. Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, what with his latest forays into Europe and possibly beyond, is another.
While it is next to impossible to stop these groups exporting this ideology, shedding light on their actions and the actions of governments that are supporting this kind of persecution is necessary in order to ensure that we are not giving these groups a free pass and that people working within hostile countries to improve human rights know there is help readily available and a world of support on which they can draw.
In this way, talking about Mbede’s tragic story matters. It’s vital, in fact, because it serves as an example of the consequences of exporting, stoking and turning a blind eye to such hate. So for now, let Cameroon be known as the country that killed a man, and all for saying the words “I’m very much in love with you.”
Photo credit: Thinkstock.