Advocates Speak Out Against Senegal’s Conviction of MSM Involved With HIV/AIDS Organizations
Several HIV/AIDS and human rights organizations recently criticized Senegal for sentencing nine men who have sex with men to eight years in jail, AFP/Yahoo! Health News reports. The sentence is the "toughest such sentence to date in a country where homosexuality is outlawed," according to AFP/Yahoo! Health News (AFP/Yahoo! Health News, 1/15). The men were arrested in December 2008 and charged with "indecent conduct and unnatural acts and membership of a criminal organization." Consensual same-sex relations are illegal in Senegal and punishable by up to five years in jail. However, the judge increased each man's sentence to eight years because of their "membership of a criminal organization." Most of the men belonged to a group aimed at fighting HIV/AIDS (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 1/8).
UNAIDS on Thursday criticized Senegal's actions, saying homophobia hinders efforts to prevent HIV/AIDS in the country. Michel Sidibe, executive director of the organization, said "Universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support must be accessible to all people in Senegal who are in need -- including men who have sex with men." Sidibe called on Senegal to release the men and undertake action "to rebuild trust with affected communities." Scott Long -- director of Human Rights Watch's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender program -- said the charges against the men "will have a chilling effect on AIDS programs." He added, "Outreach workers and people seeking HIV prevention or treatment should not have to worry about police persecution." According to Long, Senegal's statute banning homosexuality "invades privacy, criminalizes health work, justifies brutality and feeds fear." The African Meeting of Defense of Human Rights also criticized Senegal's "heavy" sentence. French President Nicolas Sarkozy at a cabinet meeting Wednesday said he is "emotional and preoccupied" about the Senegalese case. According to AFP/Independent Online , the French health ministry has asked the foreign ministry to lobby for the men's release (Vandal, AFP/Independent Online, 1/16). A coalition including the French and Swedish embassies also is working to secure the release of the men, according to UNAIDS (AFP/Yahoo! Health News, 1/15). The Senegalese government has declined to comment on the case, AFP/Independent Online reports.
According to Cheikh Ibrahima Niang, a social anthropology professor at University Cheikh Anta Diop in Senegal's capital of Dakar, "homophobic currents" have always been present in Senegalese society, but they have "become more and more acute" in recent years. Many advocates also have expressed concern that Senegal's attitude about homosexuality will lead to an increase in HIV cases if MSM are reluctant to seek treatment that could identify them as gay. According to the French organization AIDES, Senegal's HIV prevalence among MSM is 21.5%, compared with 0.7% among the general population. According to AFP/Independent Online, Senegal is one of only seven African countries with a national HIV/AIDS prevention program that specifically focuses on MSM (AFP/Independent Online, 1/16).