In the week before the holidays Stephen Hawking and other top scientists published a letter to the UK Prime Minister asking that Alan Turing, the mathematician and Enigma code-breaker, be pardoned for his 1952 conviction for gross indecency (the then crime of consensual intimacy between men). It's an odd request. Why just Turing? What about all the others, famous and obscure? In reply to an earlier move to have Turing pardoned the justice minister Lord McNally stated that a pardon was "not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence." Yet as of 1 October under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 anyone in the UK convicted for actions which are no longer considered criminal, including in most cases gross indecency, can apply to have that conviction 'disregarded.'
Neither the wording of Stephen Hawking's letter nor the minister's position takes this into account, but then nor does the act appear to offer much comfort to the loved ones of people who are already dead: you have to be alive to apply and there are still questions as to whether 'disregarding' unjust convictions is enough. Should there not also be a measure of compensation? Issuing a pardon to Turing in this context would in any case imply that he'd done something wrong. As the new act confirms, he had not: he was himself adamant about this. It's the laws criminalising sexual identity that were wrong not the behavior they sought unreasonably to regulate, so Hawking and his colleagues shouldn't be requesting a pardon, but that these historic convictions be quashed.
In the UK since 1967 laws governing consensual same-sex sexual activity between adults have gradually been repealed under virtually all circumstances. Sadly that is not the case around the world and new Turings are being convicted and imprisoned or even executed at an alarming rate. In many countries we simply don't know the details, but in Cameroon, for example, a steep rise in prosecutions has been noted. Cameroon draws from the same pool of criminal sanctions used to convict Turing, along with Peter Wildeblood, John Gielgud, Oscar Wilde and a host of other men, sanctions imported into what were then colonies of the British Empire. It's a great irony that after Britain decriminalised homosexuality most countries in the Commonwealth continue to persecute their LGBT citizens using the same or similar laws. Cameroon, with its dual colonial legacy, French and British, could on independence have adopted only the French penal code as the basis of its laws, which did not criminalise homosexuality, but British anti-gay laws were inserted alongside the penal code with a peculiarly perverse determination.
There are currently at least eleven people locked up in Cameroon's grim prison regime for homosexual 'offences' with numerous cases pending judgment. Convictions can be achieved on appearances alone. Earlier this year two young men were imprisoned on the basis that they were seen drinking Bailey's Irish Cream. Jean-Claude Roger Mbédé, a promising communications student at the University of Central Africa in Yaounde, was convicted of homosexuality and 'attempted homosexuality' in April 2011 after sending a text message to another man which read "I'm very much in love with you." His sentence is three years imprisonment . Because of rapidly deteriorating health due to lack of medical care in prison, he was released in April pending an appeal of his conviction, much to the Cameroonian legal system's credit.
When on 17 December Mbédé's appeal was rejected he became a prisoner at large. What is there for this young man to do? Should he flee Cameroon? If so, how? The alternative is returning to the brutal embrace of Kondengui prison, where LGBT prisoners are more often than not subjected to physical and sexual violence, with the refinement that his name and picture have been all over the national press. Increasingly those who are able to are seeking asylum from more tolerant societies. But flight requires money and travel papers including a visa for the country on the mercy of which you intend to throw yourself; none of these things are easy to come by for ordinary Cameroonians. Given his conviction and sentence, the more straightforward means of leaving the country are closed to Mbédé.
Of course, if you are a member of Cameroon's über-corrupt government there are no restrictions on your travel. Perhaps it's time the UK, EU and US began to redress the balance, with travel bans and other limits on the movements of those who promote the violation of their fellow LGBT citizens' human rights. The West is often accused of neo-colonialism over this issue. I met Mbédé's lawyer, Alice Nkom, in London a year ago and she was unequivocal about welcoming support from any quarter. She has very little to lose by it. The forces ranged against her are formidable, but despite death threats and government intimidation - in November she was forced to petition the UN for protection - Alice and her team continue to offer help and legal expertise to LGBT people ensnared by Cameroon's anti-gay laws.
Jean-Claude Roger Mbédé is not a rich man, nor a part of his country's elite. He may never be an Alan Turing, he may be something else, something greater, but he'll be only a fraction of the person he could be while his identity remains the subject of cynical criminal sanctions. Were he released today he couldn't go back to his studies in Cameroon, and perhaps his potential is already lost. Only when laws criminalising homosexuality are repealed will people like Jean-Claude be accepted for who they are. Worrying developments in Uganda and Nigeria, where new laws are being tabled threatening more and more draconian punishments, mean that action from the West and, perhaps more powerfully, states like South Africa is urgent. If even one politician is made the subject of a travel ban on the basis of this issue, for example, it may make others think twice. No more trips to Paris, London or New York; no more chairing international conferences in the palace of Westminster or attending banquets at the White House.
Decriminalisation will work no instant miracles; it's just a beginning of a process, a process with which we in the UK are familiar, from widespread societal hostility prevalent only twenty years ago to broad acceptance today. The very fact of the Protection of Freedoms Act is proof of this, even if it doesn't go far enough. Arguably we all benefit, for society itself cannot be free while innocent men and women are forced to live invisible or denied lives, while the dominating factor in living is fear of unjust laws.