On Monday July 15, 2013, news of the murder of Eric Ohena Lembembe, a Cameroonian journalist and LGBTI human rights activist, filtered in just as my colleagues and I were concluding the first day of human rights documentation training in Doula, Cameroon. Eric's friends and the police had found him dead in his home, the victim of a brutal murder.
Cameroonian activists, visibly shaken, scared and apprehensive, were not only shocked by the fact that they had lost a friend and colleague in this brutal manner, but also by the possibility that they might soon be a target. Some said they might go underground for a while. One or two said they would 'tone down' their activism or operate from home instead of in public places where they might be associated with the LGBTI movement. Others were fearful that they could be next. The news had sent shock waves down the spines not only of those present at the training, but also tens of thousands of LGBTI activists across the world.
Given a recent spate of homophobic attacks in Cameroon, there was strong speculation that Eric's death was connected to his sexual orientation and related activism. Lembembe's murder follows other anti-LGBTI violence including the arson attack on the office of Alternatives Cameroun by unknown assailants. The office of Michel Togue, a human rights lawyer, was also reported broken into and documents stolen. Both Togue and legal advocate Alice Nkom have received repeated death threats for their defense of LGBTI individuals in the courts.
For me, Eric Lembembe's death represents the loss of a brilliant friend and advocate. I met Eric at the Yaoundé Appeal Court in November 2012. We had both come to show solidarity for yet another victim of intolerance and injustice: Roger Mbede. Mbede, who was later convicted for sending a text message declaring his love to another man, was being tried for his crime "against the order of nature."
I followed Eric's work as Executive Director of CAMFAIDS, a human rights organization working to protect the rights of sexual minorities in Cameroon, with much admiration. And, like so many others, I was inspired by his frequent writings on 76crimes.com.
Eric's death is a harsh reminder of the inherent danger LGBTI human rights defenders face in Africa. In many countries, LGBTI defenders live and work in very dangerous situations. They are subjected to harassment, surveillance, arbitrary detention, smear campaigns, and prolonged and unfair trials. They not only have to contend with hostilities from state actors but also from family and community members.
The killing of Eric Lembembe has struck a blow to the fight for justice and equal rights for sexual minorities in Cameroon. As a journalist and movement leader, he was one of the most visible faces in the LGBTI movement in that country. For many, there is no doubt that his death is connected with his advocacy for the rights of LGBTI persons. After recent attacks on Yaoundé-based human rights organizations, Lembembe himself said, "There is no doubt: anti-gay thugs are targeting those who support equal rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Unfortunately, a climate of hatred and bigotry in Cameroon, which extends to high levels in government, reassures homophobes that they can get away with these crimes."
Indeed, Eric's determined efforts over the past years to uncover and document extortion, blackmail, torture and persecution of LGBTI people in Cameroon had made him many enemies. For this reason alone, he may have been targeted for murder.
There is no doubt that a climate of fear has enveloped the LGBTI movement since Eric's killing, yet this may also mark a turning point for the Cameroonian LGBTI movement. History shows, time and time again, that the struggle for justice does not cower in the face of adversity. As we have seen in Uganda following the death of LGBTI leader David Kato, the advancement of equality and democracy is an unstoppable tide.
While the world has expressed horror and disgust at the murder of Eric Lembembe, it is not enough to simply condemn the killing of this brilliant activist. We must continue to exert pressure on the Cameroonian government to bring the perpetrators to justice. Above all we must do everything possible to help the fledgling Cameroonian LGBT movement to get back on its feet and support its continued efforts.
Eric's death is very painful to the movement, but it will not stop LGBTI Cameroon in the long-term. A leader has been killed, and a movement attacked, but the Cameroonian LGBTI movement has not been torn asunder. It is saddened, but it has also strengthened its resolve to work for the human rights of all LGBTI Cameroonians.
Eric Lembembe's funeral was held in Yaoundé, Cameroon on Aug. 3, 2013. According to press reports, "Hundreds of mourners took part in yesterday's funeral for murdered journalist and LGBT rights activist Eric Lembembe, 33, including the United States ambassador, the United Kingdom's high commissioner and the European Union's program director for Cameroon."
Alice Nkom, the lawyer representing Lembembe, interviewed by FRANCE 24, said there has been no credible effort to investigate his death or collect the elements necessary for a good investigation. Nkom expressed skepticism as to the outcome. We are afraid that with no information from the police, we will never know who did this and no one will ever be punished," she said. "We are afraid there will never be justice."