A life sentence for saying 'I love you'
‘I’m very much in love with you.’
The words that made Roger Jean-Claude Mbede famous. And the words that, in a roundabout way, led to his early death.
In 2011 Roger Jean-Claude Mbede texted someone to tell them he loved them. Because he was texting in Cameroon, and because it was to another man, Roger was arrested. The police interrogated him for days, stripping him naked and beating him.
After a trial where he was denied legal representation, Roger was jailed for three years on charges of ‘homosexuality and attempted homosexuality’ and locked away in an overcrowded prison where he was sexually assaulted, refused vital medical treatment and beaten by prison guards.
Amnesty supported Roger’s case, called him a prisoner of conscience, encouraged people around the world to stand beside Roger and ask Cameroon’s authorities to release him immediately. There is a brief and heartwarming moment in the short film below where Roger is talking about his arrest, the beatings, hurtful rejection from his family – awful stuff. Then the postman arrives with armfuls of letters for him from supporters all around the world. (Skip to 3:34 if you're impatient.)
Roger died on Friday. He was released from prison in summer last year on medical grounds; according to his lawyer, the family who’d rejected him also rejected his medical treatment plan. Whatever the cause of his death at the age of 34, the vilification Roger experienced at the hands of the police, prison authorities, neighbours, and his own family led to him being denied treatment he desperately needed, in prison and at home.
Africa’s anti-gay laws are getting worse
It’s illegal to be gay in 36 out of 54 African states. Depending on where you live, having a consensual relationship or expressing feelings of desire, as Roger did, can get you imprisoned for anything up to life. You can be executed in four countries: effectively sentenced to death from birth.
In the video above, Roger talks about realising he was gay aged around 10 years old – ‘I knew that it was something bad, from people around me’. That social fear and scaremongering around gay relationships is only set to rise in sub-Saharan Africa, with Nigeria and potentially Uganda tightening laws and increasing punishments for anyone suspected of expressing anything other than heterosexual desire.
Nigeria: the witch hunt is starting
The week before Roger died, President Goodluck Jonathan rolled back human rights for Nigerians by expanding the country’s far-reaching, repressive and discriminatory anti-gay laws. It was already illegal to be gay in Nigeria, but now same-sex marriages carry a prison sentence of up to 14 years, and membership of any LGBTI organisation – even a meeting in a bar between two people identified as LGBTI – will get you up to a decade in the dock.
Northern states of Nigeria operate under Shari’a law and stone ‘homosexuals’ to death. Today, Islamic courts began the trial of eleven allegedly gay men – the national crackdown seems to be united across secular and religious law-enforcing fronts.
Already, there are reports of police rounding up of people suspected of cohabiting with someone of the same sex or meeting with others who have been identified as LGBTI. There have been at least 10 verified arrests in the last couple of days, with many more reported. Apparently a police officer turned up to a counselling session for men living with AIDS to shop them and force them to name LGBTI people they know for arrest. Nice.
A disturbing feature of Nigeria’s Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act is the reach of the law – anyone involved in LGBTI meetings or organisations faces imprisonment. That easily encompasses health workers, lawyers, activists, non-governmental organisations… The new law not only criminalises love but denies anyone identified as LGBTI from talking about it, from seeking health treatment, from accessing basic advocacy or legal support. It stokes fears around having conversations around sexual health and human rights – among many other things.
This law is life-threatening in Nigeria, which has the world’s second largest population of adults living with HIV/AIDS. President Jonathan has decreed AIDS a national priority ('No Nigerian must die of AIDS') and yet this law will undoubtedly dissuade people from seeking tests or treatment for HIV, for fear of being identified as LGBTI and imprisoned.
Uganda could be next
Uganda is set to follow Nigeria in rolling back rights for anyone identified as LGBTI. Being gay is a crime already there, but in a couple of weeks’ time, anyone identified as LGBTI could be rounded up to spend the rest of their life in prison.
Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill is one step away from becoming law, after it was passed by Parliament at the end of last year. Now, Uganda’s President Museveni holds the key to whether it passes or returns to Parliament. He has until the end of January to decide. Please email the President and ask him to veto the Bill urgently
As with Nigeria, Uganda’s law is far-reaching, imposing prison sentences on anyone suspected of involvement with LGBTI individuals – restricting access to legal support and health advice. In fact, if you know of someone working with LGBTI individuals and you fail to report that activity within 24 hours, you too will be prosecuted. All this in a climate of fear and hatred, where vitriolic media tirades are not only legitimised but actively encouraged by policy-makers.
Sacrificing their lives to defend gay rights
Reports that Nigerian police are drawing up hit lists of hundreds of LGBTI individuals mirrors the infamous ‘gay lists’ published in the Ugandan press in recent years. David Kato, a prominent Ugandan gay rights activist, was one number on that list – his photo appearing beside the headline ‘Hang them’ in 2011; his address published inside the paper. Next week will mark three years since David was murdered in his home, after a hate campaign in the media and public vilification by politicians.
How many more will die for saying ‘I love you’?
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.