“We are into human rights and the rule of law in Cameroon”

Contra Nocendi is an international human rights NGO with Headquarters in Paris and an independent section in Buea, Cameroon. SixDegrees caught up with the Executive Director of the Cameroon section, Gilbert Ajebe Akame a professional lawyer to know more about their activities and organization.

How does Contra Nocendi intend to protect human rights and rule of law in African countries?

Contra Nocendi focuses on the advancement of human rights protection and rule of law in Africa. Currently we are working with NGOs in Burundi and Cameroon to address issues of treatment in detention. This includes monitoring the respect for rights afforded to persons in detention under international human rights law and the domestic law of the respective countries. Additionally, we are working with European based NGOs to address the current migration crisis in the European Union in a manner that is more inclusive of the perspective of the migrants and their motivations for leaving their countries of origin. Our goal is to address the link between human rights issues in countries of origin of refugees and migrants in Africa, and the impact on the migration crisis.

You are leading the legal clinic in Buea. Are there any specific areas you are focusing in Cameroon?

Yes, there is. The purpose of operating a legal clinic in Buea is to make justice more accessible to vulnerable persons in detention by providing free legal representation, education, advocacy and monitoring treatment in detention. The clinic seeks to bring together lawyers who are committed to human rights and pull together other resources to achieve these goals.

Executive Director of the Cameroon section, Gilbert Ajebe Akame in a workshop. Photo credit: Sara Rossi/International Institute of Humanitarian Law

What motivated you to launch this clinic?

Our motivation was first the need to provide free legal assistance to the most vulnerable groups, and monitor the protection of human rights in Cameroon. Personally, I have spent most of my professional life defending the cause of rights and justice as lawyer and a human rights activist. During the earlier part of my professional life from the year 2007, I was part of a team in Global Conscience Initiative where we initiated a similar access to justice project in Kumba. I dedicated most of my time assisting the NGO with free legal services and human rights monitoring. It is the need for continuity in the defence for human rights that is my prime motivation.

Also, as a result of my years of experience, I came to realise that lawyers often lacked the incentive to offer pro bono services due to lack of resources to cover administrative costs for litigation. These processes can approximately cost 200-250 USD but can be more. That’s a lot in Cameroon. Bribes sometimes have to be paid for the victims or powerful parties bribe their way in defending their case. Contra Nocendi sought to bridge this gap by setting up the clinic and pull together additional resources to mitigate costs and motivate lawyers who are willing to offer services.

What are the key issues that you intend to tackle with this clinic?

We intend to provide pro bono legal services to vulnerable persons who would otherwise be unable to obtain legal counsel, in the form of legal representation during the entire judicial process from investigation, trial and detention. We want to ensure proper treatment by monitoring treatment in detention. We strive to work together with authorities to ensure the respect for the special needs for the extra vulnerable groups — women, juveniles and LGBT persons in detention. For example, to ensure that women and men are kept in separate facilities and are accorded treatment and basic conditions as required by standard principles for the treatment of detainees. Also that juvenile offenders receive proper treatment that their status requires and are referred to juvenile reform institutions. We will equally pay particular attention to issues surrounding gender based violence including SOGIE rights (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression).

The clinic equally intends to play a strong advocacy and education role. We intend to work in collaboration with security forces, members of the judiciary and other government agencies to foster the respect for human rights. We are already interacting closely with them. We work to improve the understanding of human rights by service providers and the general public by organising training and education programs, conducting research on relevant human rights questions.

What is the status of LGBT rights in Cameroon? What problems they encounter?

LGBT persons still face risks of prosecution and persecution in Cameroon. They are sought after by the criminal justice system and shun by society. There is very limited action in support of LGBT rights in Cameroon both from government and civil society. There are reports like from Amnesty International indicating that violence against LGBT persons has increased over the last few years. An example is the case of Eric Lembembe an outspoken gay rights activist who was killed in his home in July 2013 just weeks after he voiced government inaction over threat posed by ‘anti-gay thugs’. In another case in November 2015, a Kumba based lawyer was alleged to have been ambushed and beaten up by thugs for defending a gay man.

The main problem seems to be the lack of an enabling environment for education and sensitization on LGBT rights in Cameroon. People who stand up for LGBT rights are quickly dismissed for promoting an ‘outside agenda’.

Legally, where does Cameroon stand on the LGBT issue?

Sadly, Cameroon like many other African countries criminalizes homosexuality. Section 347 of the Cameroon penal code prohibits sexual relations between persons of the same sex. Violators face six months to five years of imprisonment and a fine up to 200,000 CFA (about 320 USD). Such penalties are doubled if the prohibited acts are carried out with a minor aged between sixteen and twenty one.

What are your experiences dealing with the state and the victims?

My past experience with state authorities has been to a large extent defined by engagement to ensure better protection for vulnerable persons. In many instances the relationship has been cordial and defined by legal rules and procedures in place. For example, the right of pre-trial detainees to visits from legal counsel are grounded in the Cameroon Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) which allows lawyers the right to visit detainees. However, in some situations where I encountered difficulties in gaining access to facilities from the prisons administration, I sought authorisation from the State Department of Prosecutions who act as supervisory authority. On the other hand, applications for release on bail are equally grounded in the CPC. However, in some cases the approval of well-grounded request for release on bail are not often automatic upon application.

Contra Nocendi Executive Director Gilbert Ajebe Akame with Chief Justice of the Appeals Court of the Southwest Region C J Vera Ngassa . Photo credit: Contra Nocendi

We are working to closely collaborate with relevant authorities to promote better treatment of detainees in detention centres and the respect for human rights in general. In fact, one of our staunch supporters with whom we intend to collaborate closely on this project is a Chief Justice of the Appeals Court of the Southwest Region and lecturer in the University of Buea, C J Vera Ngassa. She has been very influential over the years in promoting the respect for human rights and equal justice in the country. She has been very vocal on issues affecting women and the girl child such as women’s right to land ownership and inheritance in Cameroon.

What you intend to achieve with this legal clinic?

In the short term we intend to be able to have in place committed lawyers, paralegals and volunteers to get the clinic running. We also intend to meet our short term goals of providing pro bono legal services to persons in detention and monitoring treatment in detention within the Southwest region. In the medium and long term, we intend to extend our reach to other regions to include other vulnerable groups in the country. We intend to strengthen our collaboration with lawyers and other NGOs working on similar issues, maintain a few paid staff and put in place a system to ensure the clinic’s sustainability.

How do you support your work?

So far we have been self-funding the work we do. Currently we are in search for potential donors to fund our upcoming projects. We have been able to get a few grants to cater for some administrative needs as we work to get fully functional.

Any other information you want to share

We are using international human rights standards like the UN Convention Against Torture and other international legal instruments that Cameroon has freely bound itself to as a basis for our human rights programming.

We strive to be as inclusive as possible and try to engage in positive and constructive discourse with security forces, judiciary personnel, and government representatives in order to foster an environment that is conducive for the advancement and respect of human rights protections afforded to persons in detention.

I will have to state that we at Contra Nocendi Cameroon strongly believe that for African Countries to attain emergence in the next 20 to 25 years, there is a certain level of freedom and respect for human rights that have to be embraced. People have to be able to enjoy basic human rights and corruption has to be eradicated. It is the place for youths in Cameroon to be the voice behind this change.

Featured photo credit: Peter Tatchell Foundation

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