Mbede, who is also known as Jean-Claude Roger Mbede, won won provisional release on July 16 for medical treatment, but returning to his old life has proved impossible.
Most of his family has abandoned him, so he has to live with a friend. He is scheduled for surgery on July 26 for a hernia, but doesn’t know how he will pay for the operation. His face is scarred from an assault in prison.
In an interview on July 20, four days after his release from Kondengui Prison in the Cameroonian capital of Yaoundé, Mbede seems to have regained only his ability to smile.
“I’m back from afar,” he says.
Mbede had been in prison since March 9, 2011, losing 16 months of his life for the unfortunate decision to send text messages. He was sentenced April 28, 2011, to 36 months in prison and fined 33,000 CFA francs (about €50 or $61) for homosexuality, which under Cameroonian law is punishable by imprisonment for up to five years.
His lawyers, Alice Nkom and Michel Togué, won his provisional release this month after the court rejected more than a dozen applications.
Mbede’s story begins in late 2010, when he was studying for a master’s degree in the philosophy of education at the University of Central Africa in Yaoundé. He became acquainted with a senior official serving the president of the Republic of Cameroon, he says. After four months of a friendly relationship and telephone calls, Mbede says he fell into an ambush prepared by the man, who had complained of receiving declarations of love from Mbede.
“On March 2, 2011, he called, asking me to visit him at home. To my surprise, I was greeted there by two policemen who arrested me and took me in a cell under the control of the Secretary of Defense,” Mbede recalls. “For one week, I was subjected to tough interrogations, without knowing what was happening. A few days later, on March 9, the public prosecutor issued a warrant and I was sent to prison the same day. After three hearings, I was sentenced,” he says.
Life is hard in Kondengui Prison, especially when you’re gay. “As you enter the prison, the guards hurl insults at you, such as ‘faggot’ and ‘sorcerer.’ “
Prison conditions there are difficult for everyone — not enough of the uncomfortable beds, unclean water, promiscuity, and diseases such as tuberculosis, diarrhea, and skin diseases, he says.
On top of that comes daily homophobic abuse, both verbal and physical. Inmate complained to the prison superintendent that they would not live with a “faggot” in the same room. After suffering multiple cuts and bruises, Mbede has a scar on his brow from one of many assaults in prison.
During his time there, he received help from the Project for the Support and Assistance of Sexual Minorities, or PAEMH, while the Association for the Defense of Homosexuals, or ADEFHO, brought him food and provided medical and legal aid. Amnesty International pleaded for his release.
“The PAEMH was very supportive,” he says. “One of its leaders, Lamba Marc Lambert, brought me food to eat and clothes to wear. Without their assistance, I don’t know what would have happened to me,” he says.
He did not hear from his family after his arrest.
Mbede hopes that his conviction will be overturned in an appeal scheduled for Aug. 20. Then he plans to finish his studies, find work and become independent.
“For now,” he says, “I am staying at a friend’s house because my family rejects me.”
“My father told me that I am no longer his son,” Mbede says. “If he had to choose between a madman and me, he says he would choose the madman. My sister, meanwhile, says she would prefer to have a brother who is a thief or other criminal rather than a homosexual.”
As his July 26 hernia operation approaches, Mbede is worried about how he will pay for the surgery. He feels helpless and does not know where to start, he says.