The jailing of nine Senegalese activists on charges of “indecent and unnatural acts” and “forming associations of criminals” shows how laws against homosexual conduct damage HIV and AIDS prevention efforts, Human Rights Watch has said.

The men, who were involved in HIV-prevention work, were sentenced on January 6 in Dakar to a total of eight years in prison.

“These charges will have a chilling effect on AIDS programs,” said Scott Long, director of Human Rights Watch’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights program.

“Outreach workers and people seeking HIV prevention or treatment should not have to worry about police persecution. Senegal should drop these charges and repeal its sodomy law.”

HIV and AIDS advocates in Senegal report that the ruling has produced widespread panic among organisations addressing HIV and AIDS, particularly those working with men who have sex with men and other marginalised populations.

These nine men were apparently arrested merely on suspicion of engaging in homosexual conduct.

Human Rights Watch said that so long as they remain detained – given the general climate of hostility against men perceived to engage in homosexual conduct and the risk of violence against them – Senegalese authorities should ensure their safety by separating them from other prisoners, if necessary.

The organisation insisted that the authorities also ensure that the men receive any necessary medical care, including antiretroviral therapy.

The men were detained on December 19, 2008, after several police officers burst into the private residence of an HIV outreach worker some miles outside Dakar at 11 p.m. and arrested all nine men in the house.

At the trial, prosecutors apparently used the materials found in the house that are standard HIV-prevention tools used in outreach work as evidence of homosexual conduct, for which the men received the maximum five-year sentence.

“Senegal’s sodomy law invades privacy, criminalises health work, justifies brutality, and feeds fear,” said Long. “This case shows why it is time for the sodomy law to go.”

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