Human rights groups have called for the immediate and unconditional release of up to 20 men arrested on suspicion of homosexuality in Senegal in the past week.

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) and PAN-Africa ILGA have sent a letter to the Senegalese Minister of Justice demanding the men’s release.

At least seven and perhaps as many as 20 gay men have been arrested in Dakar, the Senegalese capital, since the morning of Sunday 3 February after a popular local magazine, Icones, published photographs of a marriage ceremony between two Senegalese men.

The wedding is believed to have taken place in a discrete location in Dakar more than a year-and-a-half ago. Sources report that the photographs were sold to the sensationalist magazine by the photographer for 1,500,000 ($3000) CFA francs.

The arrests were reportedly undertaken upon the orders of Mr. Asane Ndoye, head of the Senegalese Police’s Division of Criminal Investigation. It is unclear where the men are being held.

“Mass arrests of people simply because they are gay terrorize the entire community,” said Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of IGLHRC. “The inhuman treatment of gay men and lesbians must stop. We call upon the world community to enforce international human rights law.”

“We are afraid for our lives, especially those of us shown in the photographs,” said Jean R., a Senegalese gay activist who spoke to ILGA and IGLHRC from a hotel where he is seeking refuge. “Some of us have gone into hiding and others are fleeing the country.”

Senegal is one of the few Francophone African countries that penalize homosexuality. Under Article 3.913 of the Senegalese penal code, homosexual acts are punishable by imprisonment of between one and five years and a fine of 100,000 ($200) to 1,500,000 ($3,000) CFA francs. While there are occasional arrests and convictions of gay men under the Article, social stigma and blackmail are the most prevalent abuses faced by gay men in the country.

“Many consider Senegal to be one of the most progressive African countries on the issue of homosexuality,” said Joel Nana, IGLHRC’s Program Associate for West Africa. “The government has included a commitment to fighting HIV among men who have sex with men in its national AIDS response plan since 2005. That’s why we found these arrests to be very distressing.”

IGLHRC and Pan-African ILGA have expressed concern as to whether Senegal is well-suited to host the upcoming International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA), scheduled to take place in Dakar in December 2008.

“There will be no room for an open and inclusive discussion on the human rights dimensions of HIV in the face of such harassment,” said Danilo da Silva, co-chair of Pan-African ILGA, a federation gathering over 40 lesbian and gay groups from all parts of Africa. “We expect more from a leading country like Senegal.”

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