The United Nations has criticised Cameroonian authorities for detaining 11 men on their basis of their presumed sexuality.

The men were arrested at a bar frequented by gays and lesbians in Yaoundé, Cameroon last June and sentenced to 10 months imprisonment after being found guilty “sodomy.”

However, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has now declared that their detention is contrary to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which protects citizens from discrimination.

The UN human rights body further called on the government of Cameroon to adopt necessary measures to remedy the situation, including the possible repeal of the offending law. The men were detained for more than one year on anti-homosexuality offences rising from Cameroon’s Penal Code.

The ruling came in response to a complaint brought by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) on behalf of the men.

“The opinion reinforces the fact that laws which criminalize and discriminate based on sexual orientation are contrary to international human rights law,” said Philip Dayle, legal officer at the ICJ.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has declared that sodomy laws are inconsistent with the countries’ obligations to protect the right of non-discrimination under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

At its 39th Session in Banjul, Gambia in March 2006, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights also questioned the Cameroonian government about its continued detention of the men.

This decision by the Working Group marks one of only two occasions that this particular UN human rights body has publicly issued an opinion impugning detentions based on anti-homosexuality laws.

It is being hailed by IGLHRC, ICJ, and Alternatives-Cameroun-three groups that have worked internationally and locally on behalf of the men since their arrest in May 2005-as a major human rights victory for gay people in Africa.

“Perhaps the Working Group’s decision will help stop other people from being arrested and possibly dying simply because of their sexual orientation,” said Joel Gustave Nana, human rights researcher for Alternatives-Cameroun.

There are other cases the groups would like to have overthrown, on June 7, 2006, four women were also convicted of sodomy and sentenced to 3 years probation and threatened with 6 months imprisonment “if they continue their lesbianism.” At least four other men are still detained in Kondengui Central Prison because of their homosexuality, some without formal charge or trial.

“The decision of the UN Working Group applies to all individuals in Cameroon who face similar charges related to consensual same-sex behaviour, not just to the 11,” said Cary Alan Johnson, IGLHRC senior advisor for Africa.

“We are calling on the government of Cameroon to live up to its international and regional obligations, to release anyone currently detained on sodomy charges, and repeal all laws that lead to these detentions.”