Doing time for being gay

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Human Rights Watch, a leading advocate of human rights worldwide, on Friday called for the immediate release of nine Senegalese men found guilty of being gay and given a harsh eight year sentence.

The men, including a prominent AIDS activist, were sentenced in Dakar on January 6 on charges of “indecent and unnatural acts” and “forming associations of criminals.”

Diadji Diouf, who heads the HIV prevention organization AIDES Senegal, and the others were arrested during a police raid at Diouf's apartment, where he runs the program that distributes condoms and HIV treatment to underground gay men in Senegal, a largely Muslim country that criminalizes being gay.

“These charges will have a chilling effect on AIDS programs,” said Scott Long, director of Human Rights Watch's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights program. “Outreach workers and people seeking HIV prevention or treatment should not have to worry about police persecution. Senegal should drop these charges and repeal it's sodomy law.”

The sentencing of the men relied merely on suspicion of engaging in homosexual conduct, said HRW officials, who expressed concern for the men's safety.

“So long as they remain detained – given the general climate of hostility against men perceived to engage in homosexual conduct and the risk of violence against them – Senegalese authorities should ensure their safety by separating them from other prisoners, if necessary. The authorities must also ensure that the men receive any necessary care, including antiretrovial therapy,” HRW officials said.

Prosecutors used the condoms and lubricants used for HIV-prevention work collected by police during their raid as evidence of homosexual conduct. The men received the maximum five-year sentence, with an additional three years added for “criminal association.”

A United Nations resolution calling for the universal decriminalization of being gay was introduced in the General Assembly on December 18 and gathered 66 member signatures, but many Muslim countries condemned it and introduced their own anti-gay resolution which gathered 60 signatures.

Backers of the pro-gay resolution say anti-gay laws are used to “harass civil society, restrict free expression, discredit enemies, and destroy lives.”

Anti-gay sentiment in Africa has been on the rise in recent years. Ethiopian religious leaders recently called on lawmakers to constitutionally ban being gay. In making their case, the religious leaders called being gay “the pinnacle of immorality” and blamed it for an increase in sexual attacks on boys and young men. Nigerian leaders attempted to pass a law last year that would have criminalized associating with a known gay person. And Gambia's president has called for the beheading of gay men and women.

“Senegal's sodomy law invades privacy, criminalizes health work, justifies brutality, and feeds fear,” Long said. “This case shows why it is time for the sodomy law to go.”

Being gay remains illegal in 80 countries throughout the world, according to the U.N. Nine countries prescribe death as a punishment.