Two transgender women were sentenced to five years in prison in Cameroon this week after they were found guilty of “attempted homosexuality” and public indecency, the latest example of an increasing crackdown on gay and transgender people in the West African nation, human rights groups say.
Shakiro, identified in police documents as Loïc Njeukam, and Patricia, referred to as Roland Mouthe, both identify as transgender and were arrested in February as they were having dinner at a restaurant in Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital. On Tuesday, they were also found guilty of failing to show proof of identity and given the maximum fine of 200,000 CFA francs, or $370.
Shakiro, a social media personality who has amassed tens of thousands of followers through her posts calling for more tolerance toward gender minorities in Cameroon, has stopped eating and shared plans to die by suicide since the verdict, according to her mother, Joséphine Marie Njeukam, who visited her in prison on Wednesday.
Ms. Njeukam said her child told her, “‘Mum, I won’t survive here for five years.’” She said her child didn’t kill anyone or steal, and that her sexuality “shouldn’t be a crime.”
Cameroon is one of more than 30 African countries that criminalizes homosexuality. In recent months lawyers and human rights groups have raised alarm over what they describe as an increase in arbitrary arrests based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the country.
More than two dozen people were arrested between February and April on charges of homosexuality, according to Human Rights Watch, and several of those arrested were subjected to beatings and other forms of abuse.
“There has long been an anti-L.G.B.T. sentiment in Cameroon,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who documents abuses in the country. “Now the judicial system contributes to the perception that homosexual and transgender people are criminals.”
The sentence for Shakiro and Patricia, who both go by a single name, is the maximum punishment under Cameroon’s penal code for engaging in sexual intercourse with a person of the same sex. But the women’s lawyer says they were detained while they were having dinner in a public space, and were not intimate or attempting to be.
Shakiro, 23, and Patricia, 27, were at a restaurant in Douala on Feb. 8 when police officers arrested them on charges of failing to provide identity documents. The two remained in prison for two months awaiting trial, according to their lawyer, Alice Nkom, and were sentenced on Tuesday.
Ms. Nkom denounced the verdict as politically motivated, and said she had appealed the decision.
Cameroon’s justice ministry did not respond to several requests for comment.
According to a transcript of Shakiro and Patricia’s interrogation seen by The New York Times, police officers responded to a call from passers-by who said the two were kissing. Cameroon’s penal code doesn’t define a kiss as sexual intercourse, and Ms. Nkom denied that they were engaging in any intimate activity.
She also accused the officers of using discriminatory language against Shakiro and Patricia during the interrogation.
In the transcript, the officers wrote, “Surprised to see women with male names.” As Shakiro said she identified as transgender, the officer asked, “What does transgender mean?” and inquired several times why she was dressing as a woman.
The owner of a beauty salon in Douala who asked to be referred to by her first name, Alice, because she had received threats since defending Shakiro publicly, said Shakiro had called her from prison on Wednesday and had also shared suicidal thoughts with her.
Ms. Allegrozzi, the Human Rights Watch researcher, said Cameroon has been increasingly targeting the L.G.B.T.Q. community. In one instance, on Feb. 24, police forces raided the offices of an L.G.B.T.Q. organization in Baffousam, a city 135 miles north of Yaoundé, the capital, and arrested 13 people on charges of homosexuality, including several staff members of the group, known as Colibri.
Among those arrested was a 26-year-old woman who was forced to undergo an H.I.V. test and anal examination, according to Human Rights Watch.
Prosecutors in Cameroon and several other countries in Africa where homosexuality is criminalized, including Kenya, Tunisia and Uganda, among others, have in recent years commissioned anal examinations to allegedly prove that a person had engaged in homosexual intercourse, even though the outdated practice has been widely discredited by health care professionals and amounts to sexual assault.
Human Rights Watch on Wednesday condemned the sentences given to Shakiro and Patricia, and called for their immediate release.
“For trans women, five years in a Cameroonian men’s prison can amount to a death sentence,” said Neela Ghoshal, a senior researcher on L.G.B.T. rights with the group.
Ms. Njeukam, Shakiro’s mother, said her child was once a bright student who had dreamed of becoming a judge, but who had dropped out of university because of the insults she had received.
Until her arrest, Shakiro sold wigs in a beauty salon and worked as a makeup artist. In recent months, she has also attracted a wide following on social media, where she has repeatedly called for more tolerance against homosexual and transgender people in Cameroon.
“My sexual orientation and my sexuality aren’t choices,” she wrote in March. “But your baseless hatred and your homophobia are.”
Linda Noumsi, a makeup artist and friend of Shakiro’s, said her activism had attracted many critics. “She has a strong personality, and she can be quite vocal about her cause, which brought real supporters, fake friends, and enemies,” Ms. Noumsi said.
Ms. Nkom, the lawyer, said the verdict sent a pernicious message to the public in Cameroon: “It says, ‘If you don’t like someone’s appearance because they are different, you can just call the police, and they’ll have them arrested.’”