Two transgender women in Cameroon have been convicted of “attempting homosexuality” and sentenced to five years in prison, in a case feared to be part of a growing campaign against sexual minorities, according to rights groups.
Shakiro Njeukam, a popular social media figure, and Patricia Mouthe were convicted on Tuesday. The charges included public indecency and non-possession of a national ID card, an offence rarely prosecuted in Cameroon.
Both were arrested in February at a restaurant in Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, targeted for the way they dressed, their lawyers said. They added that they had suffered physical abuse in detention since then.
Richard Tamfu, a lawyer for the women, condemned the ruling as unusually harsh. “The impact is that a clear message is being sent to the LGBT+ community that they are not welcome in Cameroon. It’s for them to know that if you happen to be arrested you could be imprisoned for five years.”
Same-sex acts are illegal in Cameroon, carrying a maximum five-year sentence. Yet, no evidence was provided by the court for any acts committed, Tamfu said. “We know that in the Cameroonian penal code, homosexuality is punished, [at] between six months to five years. So for someone prosecuted for attempted homosexuality, to have received five years it is very severe.”
An appeal against the judgment was submitted on Wednesday, Tamfu said, amid grave concerns for their safety in detention.
Both Shakiro and Patricia had suffered a wave of threats and attempted sexual abuse since being arrested and detained in February. “She’s a human being, yet is being made to suffer. In prison she’s being humiliated all the time,” he said. “There’s been some attempted sexual abuse.”
As in the majority of African countries, same-sex acts are illegal in Cameroon, and are often derided as being unnatural and imported from western culture. Arbitrary arrests, extortion, and abuse of sexual minorities have been common in Cameroon.
Before 2013, Cameroonian authorities were among the most aggressive in the world for prosecuting same-sex acts. After years of prosecutions falling significantly, there has been a surge in the past year of reported incidents, said Neela Ghoshal, LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch.
Ghoshal added: “We’re concerned that in the last year we’ve seen more arrests. Now to see a severe five-year conviction suggests that Cameroon is going back into a full on assault on LGBT+ people again.
Last May, 53 people were arrested in raids on groups providing HIV and Aids prevention and treatment, with some victims reporting having been beaten and subjected to forced “anal examinations”.
In one case, on 24 February , police raided an office and arrested 13 people on homosexuality charges, including seven staff. All 13 were released days later. One 22-year-old transgender woman said: “Police told us we are devils, not humans, not normal.”
Between February and April there were at least 24 incidents where Cameroonian security forces arbitrarily arrested, beat or threatened people for alleged consensual same-sex conduct or gender nonconformity, Ghoshal said.
• This article was amended on 13 May 2021 to remove the birth names of the two transgender women, in accordance with the Guardian’s style.