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Report: Police Abuse Suspected Gays in Cameroon

FILE - Esther, 29, and Martine, 26, from Yaounde, on trial in Cameroon accused of homosexuality, March 15, 2012

FILE - Esther, 29, and Martine, 26, from Yaounde, on trial in Cameroon accused of homosexuality, March 15, 2012

A new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) says officials in Cameroon have resorted to torture and other forms of abuse while pursuing cases under the country’s notorious anti-gay law. The rights watchdog says Cameroon prosecutes homosexuality “more aggressively than almost any country in the world," even though police say there has been only one arrest for homosexuality in the past six months and the country's president says he may be rethinking enforcement of the laws.

Cameroon’s anti-gay law dates back to 1972, but regular prosecutions did not begin until 2005. Human Rights Watch says charges have been brought against at least 28 people in the last three years alone although arrest activity appears to have dropped off in the past few months.

The law bans sexual activity between people of the same sex, with punishments of up to five years in prison and fines of up to $400.

While Human Rights Watch and other groups have called for an outright repeal of the law, the new report also claims that, in the past, it was being improperly enforced. Researcher Neela Ghoshal said the evidence against suspects is very weak, with cases often resting on rumor, denunciations, or even a person's appearance.

"It’s very difficult for the authorities to find proof that homosexuality has taken place," she said. "In none of the cases that we documented was anyone actually caught having sex with someone of the same sex."

Many of the suspects interviewed for the report said they had been abused or even tortured during interrogations so that they would confess. One man was tied to a chair and beaten so badly that he couldn’t walk for weeks.

Others said they were mocked openly by judges in court and faced physical and sexual abuse in prison. Several said they had been subjected to humiliating anal examinations, which Cameroonian officials claim can determine whether someone has engaged in anal sex. HRW and medical experts say such tests are of no scientific value.

Ghoshal said that it was difficult for suspects charged with homosexuality to get legal representation. The few lawyers who have readily taken on homosexuality cases have had threats issued against them and their children.

"Another problem is that it takes a lot of courage for a lawyer to defend these cases... It’s unlikely that in rural parts of Cameroon you're going to find lawyers who are willing to take this risk," Ghoshal said.

The report says that the law has implications for gay men and lesbians in Cameroon even outside the courtroom. For example, it says they are vulnerable to extortion by security forces and ordinary citizens.

Cameroonian officials could not be reached for comment on Thursday but Ghoshal said that in meetings this week with security forces, she learned that the police had not arrested anyone for homosexuality in the past six months, and that only one such arrest by the gendarmes had been documented.

“There has been a concrete and conscious effort to decrease the type of arbitrary arrests that we’ve been seeing, and that is really something positive to acknowledge," she said. "However, that said, even having the law on the books is something that is dangerous and creates obstacles to people’s freedoms.”

According to HRW, Cameroon's President Paul Biya has previously told diplomats that he would seek to impose a moratorium on arrests for homosexuality. In January, he said it was possible that there could be a “change of mind” about homosexuality in Cameroon. But no concrete action has been taken.