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Senegalese Gay Activists Freed

Nine Senegalese men who had been sentenced to lengthy prison terms for homosexual acts were set free Monday after winning an appeal of their convictions.

In a packed courtroom in downtown Dakar, the appeals court pardoned all nine defendants and overturned charges of committing unnatural acts and criminal conspiracy.

Biram Sassoum Sy, who led the defense team, says the men are completely cleared of any crime or wrongdoing and the case will not be pursued. When they were apprehended, arrested and sentenced, he says the law was broken at every step. The trial, he says, is invalid and they are free to go.

Most of the defendants worked for HIV/AIDS programs targeting men who have sex with men. They were arrested at the home of a prominent gay activist in December.

Sy says the police went to the defendant's house after neighbors tipped them off. The attorney says police arrested the men without a warrant and extorted a confession through bullying and harassment.

Senegalese law prohibits homosexual activity but requires that the suspect be caught in the act. A search warrant is also necessary if police are to enter a private home. Sy says the original judgment was hasty and emotional, and correct legal procedure was not followed.

The maximum penalty for homosexual activity is five years. The sentencing judge in this case added another three years for criminal conspiracy. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in Cape Town said no other African country has handed down such a severe sentence.

Despite the positive outcome of the appeal, AIDS activists in Senegal are concerned about the effect the trial will have on HIV programs serving men who have sex with men.

Daouda Diouf, director of community-led HIV programs at Enda Tiers Monde - an international non-profit organization based in Dakar, says AIDS work with homosexuals will take time to return to the level it was at before. He says the trial has created a lot of fear and the people working with this community feel threatened. It will take time to build up trust again, he says, so they can conduct HIV/AIDS activities without fearing for their safety.

Diouf says that if HIV is not controlled in vulnerable groups like the homosexual community, it will be impossible to manage the HIV epidemic in Senegal. These men, he says, are key players in the country's fight against HIV.