Berlin - Cameroon is suffering under an "anti-homosexuals apartheid", says lawyer Alice Nkom, who has spent a decade defending gays and lesbians in the west African country where same-sex relations carry a jail term.
"When a country uses weapons, the police and all available legal and prison means against a section of its population, while it has a commitment to protect," it is apartheid, Nkom told AFP in an interview in Berlin.
The 69-year-old prominent Cameroonian lawyer will receive a human rights prize from the German branch of Amnesty International in Berlin on Tuesday.
"Currently in Cameroon, it's an anti-homosexuals apartheid," she said, also drawing a comparison between their situation and that of slavery in the United States until the 19th century.
Homosexuality is banned in Cameroon, where it has carried a prison term of five years since 1972.
In a society that remains hostile to gays and lesbians, a mere suspicion is often enough to trigger someone being hauled in front of a court for homosexuality or to be sentenced, according to Amnesty.'All humanity' affected -
Dressed in a vivid yellow African robe known as a boubou, Nkom, her eyes sparkling behind tortoiseshell spectacles, describes the situation for gays in Cameroon more widely as "a human rights problem".
Paraphrasing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's comments, she says: "Every time a homosexual is negatively affected, it's a negative effect on all of humanity."
Sexual relations between same-sex couples are currently illegal in at least 76 countries, 36 of which are in Africa, according to Amnesty.
But Nkom disputes the idea that homophobia is an intrinsically African problem.
Pointing to the example set by South Africa's late anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, she says that on the contrary the continent's values are anchored in non-discrimination.
She urged Western countries to stand firm in challenging African discrimination against gays.
"Europeans are wrong to get intimidated when Africans say to them 'don't interfere' or 'it's you who brought us that'," she said, referring to critics who claim that homosexuality is a Western import.
She pointed in particular to Uganda where President Yoweri Museveni last month signed a bill under which "repeat homosexuals" are jailed for life, "promotion" of homosexuality is banned and people are required to report homosexuals.
"You cannot let him carry out such a barbarity on a section of his people without saying anything," Nkom said, calling for sanctions against Museveni and his family, including a visa ban for foreign travel.
From her office in Cameroon's port city of Douala, Nkom also chairs ADEFHO, an association for the defence of homosexual rights, which provides medical aid and psychological support for gays and lesbians.
In her 10-year fight, she says, some progress has been made in breaking a taboo but daily life for homosexuals in Cameroon remains full of fear.
"You have to live in complete secrecy, you have to watch the smallest of gestures because that begins at home," she said.
For example, she continued: "If your mother is very pious... for her, homosexuality is appalling, that's what they've put into her head. And she begins by no longer recognising you as her child."