When her mobile phone beeps, Alice Nkom knows what it's likely to be: the latest plea for help from the growing list of people arrested for homosexuality – or another death threat against her for daring to defend them.
After a decade of struggle against one of the world's worst jailers of gays and lesbians, the 69-year-old lawyer is weary but undeterred. Although she is past retirement age, she insists she will keep visiting Cameroon's overcrowded jails, where she currently represents eight of the dozens of imprisoned gays.
"I go to see them, and I love them, and I become like their mother," she says. "I'm maybe the only person who sees them as humans and listens to them. They are abandoned by everyone else."
Long before the controversial anti-gay laws in Uganda and Nigeria this year, Cameroon was already prosecuting homosexuals more aggressively than almost any other country. It's a hint of what could happen in other African nations after the latest wave of anti-gay laws.
Since January, both Nigeria and Uganda have passed laws that drastically increase the prison sentences for homosexual activity, despite strong protests from governments and human-rights groups around the world, including Canada. Under the new law in Nigeria, gays can be jailed for up to 14 years. In Uganda, they can be sentenced to life imprisonment. The laws are a response to pressure from church groups and the dictates of political expediency: Elections are approaching and more than 90 per cent of Nigerians and Ugandans disapprove of homosexuality.
In the battle against Africa's anti-gay laws, activists have drawn inspiration from Cameroon's gay-rights defenders. Led by Ms. Nkom, their legal challenges have reached as high as Cameroon's supreme court, offering a beacon of hope to rights groups in other countries.
Of the 78 countries in the world where homosexuality is illegal, 38 are in Africa – covering more than half of the continent's nations. Of those, Cameroon is believed to be one of the biggest prosecutors of gays, with at least 28 prosecutions since 2010, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch.
Many gays in Cameroon are imprisoned for years on the basis of trivial evidence: a neighbour's complaint, a brief text message, even an allegedly "feminine" taste in liqueurs. Some are arrested "solely on the basis of rumour," Human Rights Watch said in its report. Police often use torture or abuse to extract confessions from them, it said.
"Innocent people are framed, spied upon by neighbors, subjected to extortion and bribery, beaten by police and gendarme, humiliated with flawed anal examinations, raped in custody, disowned by parents as a result of arrest, and emotionally scarred by traumatic encounters with law enforcement – all in the name of justice," the report said.
One young man, Roger Jean-Claude Mbede, was sentenced to three years in prison in 2011 because of a simple cellphone message he sent to another man. The message said: "I'm very much in love with you."
The man complained to police, and Mr. Mbede was arrested without a warrant, according to human-rights groups. He was interrogated for days by police who stripped him naked and beat him. After his imprisonment, Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience. He fell ill in prison, was given a medical release in 2012 and fled into hiding in a remote village.
Some members of his family and village, believing him to be "cursed" by his homosexuality, prevented him from getting the medical treatment he desperately needed. In January, at the age of 35, he died. His supporters, including Ms. Nkom, were shocked. She wept with grief. "It's like when you lose your baby," she said.
Mr. Mbede's ordeal in hellish prison conditions was the main reason for his death, she says. "Our prisons are indescribable. Roger was in hiding because he knew they could arrest him and take him back to prison any day."
Ms. Nkom, a warm and gregarious woman with a ready smile who favours brightly coloured African robes and head wraps, is one of the very few Cameroonian lawyers willing to represent gays in court. As a result, she has been subjected to a steady stream of death threats, including threats to her children. She went to the authorities for help, but they ignored her. For the first time in her 45-year law career, she was forced to hire a security company to protect herself.
"I didn't realize that I'd be threatened for this," she says. "I'm really in danger. But I told them that I would never stop."
Threats against gays are common in Cameroon, where HIV clinics are careful not to erect any street signs to publicize their existence. When Ms. Nkom wanted to get legal registration for her human-rights group – the Association for the Defence of Homosexuality – the government balked. Bureaucrats delayed her application, demanding more documents and telling her to change the association's name, but she refused, and it was eventually registered.
Mr. Mbede's death has deprived her of one of the cases she intended to take to Cameroon's supreme court to challenge its anti-gay law, but she is preparing a separate case. Her inspirations, she says, are U.S. civil-rights activist Rosa Parks and the South African liberation hero Nelson Mandela.
"This is just like apartheid, with a huge opponent in front of you," she says. "They have the police, the courts, the jails – they have everything, and we have nothing. But we have to push. Otherwise we will never win."
While her legal battle will be a long one, Ms. Nkom sees signs of progress. She can discuss gay rights on television now. She often gets quiet smiles of support from Cameroonians – even from police officers and judges. "They agree with me, but they can't say it," she says.
"The issue used to be very taboo. Now it's out. When I started, people thought Cameroon would never accept it. But when I ask people, 'Do you want to put people in jail for this?' – they agree with me."
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