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Amnesty: Senegal Should Protect Citizens from Homophobic Attacks

Amnesty International says violent reaction in Senegal to the release of nine men previously sentenced to long prison terms for homosexual activity is putting these men's lives at risk.

The release of nine men accused of homosexual conduct has roused passions in Senegal. Soon after the country's Appeal Court set the men free, they were forced to go straight into hiding for fear of being attacked.

The men who were cleared of all criminal acts and pardoned by the judge had served almost three months in prison. But immediately after their release, Senegalese media and a religious organization reacted violently, encouraging people to attack anyone they suspect is gay.

"Amnesty welcomes of course the decision by Senegal's justice to release these people," said Salvatore Sagues, he Senegal researcher at Amnesty International. "But as soon as they were released, we learned that several media and an Islamic organization published homophobic statements describing these people as vicious, as perverts, as people spreading AIDS. The radio programs also broadcast messages calling for these people to be stoned."

Popular newspapers have published the names of the defendants. The Senegalese Islamic non-profit, Jamra, denounced the men in a local paper as deviants, saying homosexuality is on a par with necrophilia and bestiality.

The nine men told Amnesty International that after their arrest, crowds gathered at the police station shouting abuse and asking that the men be handed to the mob to be killed.

Sagues says the Senegalese government should protect all people at risk of homophobic attack.

"What we are asking them to do is to send a very strong message to the population saying that these aural and verbal and possible physical attacks are forbidden and the people who do this will be prosecuted," he said.

Dauda Diouf, director of community-led HIV programs at Enda Tiers-Monde - an international non-profit organization based in Dakar - has been working with the men throughout the trial. He says they are in a safe place for now and fleeing the country is not a sustainable solution. He says in the long run, it is better to reunite the men with their families.

But Sagues is concerned about the safety of gay people in an increasingly homophobic environment.

"We are now in an increased homophobic atmosphere. In the last two years, there have been several arrests and detentions of people accused of homosexuality, while in the past these kind of incidents did not occur. So we are very concerned about this climate and we think that it is up to the authorities to ensure the safety of all its citizens," he said.

Senegal's penal code prohibits sexual conduct between people of the same sex with a maximum penalty of five years and up to $3,000 in fines.

Amnesty International is calling for Senegalese authorities to repeal this law and to investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment against the nine men while they were in police custody.