In the July issue of The Indypendent, Cameroonian journalist and LGBT rights activist Eric Lembembe wrote about the burgeoning “gay scare” in his country. As he reported, homophobic voices on the ground, including some journalists, preachers and politicians, “sensationalize the issue in order to whip the public into a frenzy, taking advantage of Cameroonians’ fear of the unknown.”
LGBT Cameroonians face not only the risk of harassment and legal prosecution that Lembembe described in his piece, but also the danger of physical violence and in some cases, death. On Monday, July 15, just one day after The Indypendent went to press, Lembembe was found violently murdered in his home in Cameroon’s capital city of Yaoundé. According to one friend, Lembembe’s body showed signs of torture: his neck and feet appeared to have been broken, and his face, hands, and feet had been burned with a clothes iron.
The widespread assumption is that Lembembe’s killing was a hate crime motivated by his activism, though apart from arresting a pair of Lembembe’s friends on suspicion of the murder and releasing them shortly thereafter, Cameroonian authorities have been lax in investigating the murder.
More than that, the government has not condemned the killing, a troubling sign for the LGBT community. “In the current environment, the lack of action and clear condemnation by the government sends a message to anyone with homophobic feelings that they can act on them in the most violent way imaginable without facing any consequences,” said Neela Ghoshal, a senior researcher on LGBT rights at Human Rights Watch and a colleague of Lembembe’s.
Lembembe’s murder followed a spate of hate crimes against sexual minorities. In light of his death, LGBT organizations have chosen to focus on developing better safety measures. “Security needs to be a primary concern,” Ghoshal said. Until then, many groups have suspended their advocacy, education, outreach and health services.
Lembembe was one of the region’s most prominent LGBT rights activists and the executive director of the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS). His organization assiduously documented arrests, violence and blackmail against LGBT people. He was also a contributor to the blog “Erasing 76 Crimes,” which reports on the LGBT rights struggle in the 76 countries where homosexuality is criminalized.
“He was the voice of the LGBTI community in Cameroon,” said Ghoshal.