Nine men arrested for gay acts in Cameroon have been freed, according to a gay human rights group.

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) claims the men detained for homosexuality in Cameroon have been acquitted of all charges, in what is being called a major human rights victory in the country.

“While nothing can return to these men the year of their lives spent locked in a cell, we are hopeful that rule of law and respect for human dignity are re-emerging as basic principles of human rights in Cameroon,” said Cary Alan Johnson, IGLHRC’s senior coordinator for Africa.

“I’m told that the trial lasted less than ten minutes, with no witnesses being called by the prosecution. Judge Tonye, the magistrate overseeing the trial, stated that since there was no proof offered he declared the men innocent of all charges. After hearing the verdict, several of the men began to cry, knowing their ordeal was about to end.”

International and local advocacy efforts on behalf of the men were key to their survival and release. IGLHRC, alerted to the arrest of the men within days of its occurrence, arranged for a local attorney to take the case, repeatedly demanded their unconditional release to both Cameroonian and United Nations officials, and provided emergency assistance to help the men survive the harsh conditions of their detention.

“IGLHRC salutes the two lawyers representing the men, Alice Nkom and Duga Titanji, as well as the other attorneys and activists in Cameroon who worked on this case, not without risk and cost to themselves,” stated Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of IGLHRC.

“IGLHRC will continue to support Cameroonians who are facing the wrath of the State because of sexual expression or identity. We are going to be working on a wide variety of cases in this country.”

The West African nation has become famous this past year for detention of its citizens on “sodomy charges,” sanctioning the expelling of young women from secondary schools for their stated sexual orientation, and for “gay baiting” high level officials and public personalities with charges of homosexuality in local papers.

IGLHRC believes that in the past year at least 30 young people, mainly girls, have been thrown out of their academic institutions on suspicion of same-sex behaviour and identity. Two men were recently arrested in an internet dating sting, but then released, and four lesbian women are reportedly in police custody.

In a communication to IGLHRC, the Minister of Justice in Cameroon, Mr. Amadou Ali, had justified the detention of the men in Yaounde as ensuring “that positive African cultural values are preserved.” According to Mr. Ali, “homosexuality is not a value accepted in the Cameroonian society.” Section 347(bis) Ordinance No 72-16 of the 28 September 1972 penal code, makes homosexuality an offence punishable by up to five years in prison. Public sentiment regarding gay and lesbian identity is harsh and most same-gender loving people live lives shrouded in secrecy and fear.

“The Cameroonian government has signed international human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which guarantee all of its citizens freedom from unfair discrimination,” said Cary Alan Johnson. “But instead of recognizing how unfair it is to detain its citizens for expressing the truth about who they are, the government is scaling-up its attacks. We hope today’s victory signals to law enforcement officials, schools, and communities that human rights must be respected and that justice will prevail.”

Due to administrative procedures, the men declared innocent today will not be released until Monday. The case garnered significant publicity in Cameroon when the detainees were paraded in front of television cameras shortly after their arrest. The men must now begin the arduous task of reintegrating into their communities, seeking employment and continuing with their lives.