Amnesty International has labelled the eight men and one boy being tried in Cameroon on charges of practicing homosexuality as prisoners of conscience.

The human rights organisation is mobilising its global membership to petition Cameroon for the detainees’ immediate release.

“These defendants are being held unjustly solely on the basis of their alleged sexual orientation, in violation of international human rights standards,” said Michael Heflin, Director of OUTFront, Amnesty International USA’s programme on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Human Rights.

“Additionally, we fear that they are in grave danger of being subjected to intrusive medical examinations that would amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

The trial of the eight men and a 17-year-old boy before the High Court began in late February 2006. The court’s verdict is expected to be announced on March 17. If found guilty, the nine defendants could face five years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 200,000 CFA francs (US$350).

The detainees were arrested at a nightclub in the capital, Yaoundé, on May 22, 2005, along with two other boys who were subsequently freed. They were initially detained at Nlongka detention centre in Yaoundé, and transferred on June 13, 2005, to Kondengui Central Prison. The nine are still held at the prison, where conditions are said to be overcrowded and unsanitary, and the prison diet is reportedly inadequate.

During pre-trial investigations in late 2005, a magistrate reportedly ordered that the detainees be subjected to medical examinations in order to determine whether they had engaged in anal sex. This order has apparently not yet been implemented, but the group warns that these medical examinations could still be carried out at any time. Amnesty International believes that such examinations would constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Homosexuality is a criminal offence under Section 347a of the Cameroonian Penal Code. Amnesty International considers the nine detainees to be prisoners of conscience, held solely because of their alleged sexual orientation.

They are asking Cameroonian authorities to order an immediate halt to the trial, to release the detainees and to respect their right to freedom of association in accordance with international human rights treaties, including the African Convention for Human and People’s Rights, to which Cameroon is a party.

In January 2006, three Cameroonian newspapers published a list of several people, including government officials, musicians and businessmen whom they accused of homosexuality. Last week, one of the newspaper publishers was found guilty of defamation. He was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment and ordered to pay a fine of 300,000 CFA francs (US$425).

Meanwhile the president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, has recognised condemnation from human right groups, by criticising the journalists who published a list of suspected homosexuals.