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Activists Express Concern Over Sentencing of Gay Men in Senegal

Just one month after gay activists from around the world gathered at the International African AIDS conference in Dakar, a Senegalese judge has sentenced nine men to long prison terms for homosexual activity.

The men were arrested last month at the home of Diadji Diouf, a prominent gay activist and head of the non-profit organization, AIDES Senegal, which provides HIV education and counseling.

The nine men were each sentenced to eight years in prison last week. Joel Nana of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in Cape Town says the ruling was a big step backwards in the fight for gay rights in Africa.

"It was a surprise to me because Senegal is a country that is very progressive among African countries and actually the first country in Africa to address HIV in communities of men who have sex with men," said Nana. "This is a country where we thought there were some achievements, but having such a judgment brings us backward."

Nana says up until now, no other African country has handed down such a severe sentence.

"Leaders have spoken out against gay and lesbian people, but no one has actually moved to sentence gay and lesbian people to such harsh laws," added Nana. "Even in countries with Sharia law, no one has actually been stoned or sentenced so harshly on the basis of one's sexual orientation."

Senegal's penal code says "an impure or unnatural act with another person of the same sex" is punishable by a maximum of five years in prison and a $3,000 fine. But in this case, the judge added an extra three years for criminal conspiracy.

Human rights organizations have condemned the ruling as an abuse of basic rights and are calling for a change in the law.

French president Nicholas Sarkozy has expressed "concern" and the French foreign ministry says it "deplores the jailing of homosexuals in Senegal". The New York-based Human Rights Watch says the men should be freed and Senegal's sodomy law overturned.

But some influential religious leaders in Senegal support the court's action.

Imam Massamba Diop, president of JAMRA, an Islamic organization in Dakar, says that the judge's decision to add three years to the sentence emphasizes the seriousness of the offense. Maybe in France or in other countries it is accepted, he says, but in Senegal Islam is the dominant religion. Islam declares that if you find two men doing what he calls "this revolting act," they should be killed.

Because there is no death penalty in Senegal, Diop says the judge was as severe as he could be in order to discourage others.

Imam Diop says that Senegalese culture will never accept homosexuality. He says while Senegal is a free country and homosexuals have the right to live, they do not have the right to have sexual relations.

The International AIDS Society and the Society for AIDS in Africa say the judgment threatens to reverse progress made in Senegal's fight against HIV.

Cheikh Niang, an anthropologist at Dakar's Cheikh Anta Diop university who has studied HIV/AIDS and homosexuality in Senegal, says that Senegal is a pioneer in comprehensive AIDS programs that encourage social cohesion and exclude no one. But the severity of the sentence in this case may well undo much hard work. Niang says the ruling has created an atmosphere of panic among HIV organizations who work with homosexuals. And this climate of repression, he says, could force activists into exile and bring HIV/AIDS programs to a halt.

A gay Senegalese man who works with an HIV awareness group says violence is more common now. The young man, who did not want his name or voice used, says gay men in Senegal feel they must act like straight men in public. He says he just wants people to realize that men having sex with men is a reality in Senegalese culture.

Their sentence is under appeal, but the nine men remain in prison.