DOUALA, Cameroon (AP) — Police in Cameroon held two employees of a human rights organization for three days in connection with the killing of a prominent gay rights activist, their lawyer said, sparking criticism over how the investigation is being handled.

The two employees, Michel Engama and Cedric Mbarga, were released Tuesday afternoon without charge, said Michel Togue, a member of the legal team representing them as well as the family of the slain activist, Eric Ohena Lembembe.

Engama and Mbarga worked with Lembembe at CAMFAIDS, a human rights organization based in the capital of Yaounde, and were among the last people to see him alive on July 12, Togue said. Three days later, Lembembe's body was discovered at his home bearing signs of torture.

Lembembe's friends suspect he was killed over his activism. Just weeks before his death, he had warned about the threat posed by "anti-gay thugs" in Cameroon, one of the most hostile countries for sexual minorities in sub-Saharan Africa.

Human Rights Watch had earlier expressed doubt over whether law enforcement officials were willing and able to carry out a thorough, effective investigation of Lembembe's death, pointing out that previous incidents of anti-gay threats and violence had only resulted in the taking of statements.

A law enforcement official in Yaounde, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case, told The Associated Press that Lembembe's colleagues had been arrested "to give the impression that headway is being made in the case."

He said Lembembe's case had "really embarrassed" President Paul Biya's government. The killing drew statements of concern from France, Britain, the United States and the United Nations.

"There are fears that Cameroon may be further blacklisted by donors and denied foreign aid in the near future," the official said. "But the investigation was flawed from the start. The interrogators arrived at the scene of the murder several hours late, and all they did was collect testimonies from the late Lembembe's neighbors. I think they are onto the wrong lead."

Togue said the two rights workers should not have been held for three days. Cameroon's criminal procedure code says suspects can be held a maximum of 48 hours before being charged.

Law enforcement officials in Yaounde declined to speak on the record about the case.

The only official response from the government to Lembembe's death was a statement on July 19 condemning the international media for tarnishing the country's image and warning that future "provocative commentary" on the case would be illegal.

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Corey-Boulet reported from Dakar, Senegal.