DAKAR, SENEGAL— Four women accused of violating Senegal’s harsh anti-gay law have been freed, after a court found there was not enough evidence against them. But activists say the outcome will do little to ease pressure on the West African country’s embattled gay community.
The four suspects in Wednesday’s case were arrested in the early morning hours of November 11 during a birthday party at a restaurant in Dakar’s Yoff district. A fifth woman arrested in the same raid is a minor and so will have her case processed separately.
Police who conducted the raid later testified the women were kissing in public, something they strenuously denied at the time and when they appeared in court earlier this week.
Activists said it was unlikely any homosexuals would engage in public displays of affection in Senegal, a Muslim-majority country that has seen a rise in anti-gay sentiment in recent years.
Under Article 319 of Senegal’s penal code, homosexual acts are punishable by up to five years in prison and fines of up to $3,000.
The head of an NGO called Prudence that works with gay men and lesbians, Djamil Bangoura, said the allegations against the women were likely fabricated.
“It is not possible. The bar is on the main road," Bangoura said. "There are so many people there. It is not a discreet place. It is a bar where everyone goes. I do not see how two homosexuals or two lesbians could gather and be open there in front of people who are not like them.”
Though he expressed relief over the outcome of the case, Bangoura said it was hardly a victory for the gay community.
The women denied being lesbians, and Bangoura said gay people who are open about their sexual orientation struggle even to find lawyers when legal action is taken against them.
In a statement reacting to the verdict, Human Rights Watch said the case called into question whether local law enforcement officials are committed “to basic human rights and the rule of law.”
HRW senior researcher on homosexual rights Neela Ghoshal said the acquittal “demonstrates ... good judicial reasoning can prevail over knee-jerk homophobia.”
But she said sexual minorities in Senegal “continue to be subjected to homophobic witch-hunts, encouraged by extremist religious leaders and unchallenged by the authorities.”