Leading human rights organisation calls for release of HIV workers in Senegal

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The conviction of nine men involved in HIV prevention work for “indecent and unnatural acts” and “forming associations of criminals" in Senegal on 6th January demonstrates how laws against homosexuality hamper the prevention of HIV, a leading human rights organisation has said.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has called for the immediate release of the men pointing out that the convictions and the treatment of the men contravene civil rights declarations that Senegal has agreed to uphold.

The men were arrested at the home of an HIV outreach worker near the Senegalese capital Dakar in late December 2008. The police confiscated condoms and lubricant and arrested nine men who were present in the house. All were subsequently charged under article 319.3 of the country’s penal code for “improper and unnatural acts”.

Glossary

immediate release

Medication where the active ingredient is released quite quickly, usually in less than 30 minutes.

Condoms and lubricants seized during the police raid were used by prosecutors as evidence of homosexual activity. All the men were convicted and received the maximum five-year prison sentence.

Furthermore, the men were also found guilty of “criminal association”, which can involve a sentence of between three and five years.

“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,” said Scott Long of Human Rights Watch.

Ironically, the arrests happened just days after Senegal hosted the 15th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA). The conference had heard that laws criminalising sex between men were hampering HIV prevention work with gay and other men who have sex with men in a number of African countries.

“Senegal’s sodomy law invades privacy, criminalizes health work, justifies brutality, and feeds fear”, said Long, who highlighted that Senegal has acted contrary to a number of human rights agreements by arresting the men.

“These nine men were arrested merely on suspicion of engaging in homosexual conduct. In that case, international human rights provisions mandate their immediate release”, said Human Rights Watch.

According to Human Rights Watch, the arrests also violate article nine of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This is supposed to guarantee the right to liberty, the security of person and rights against arbitrary detention. Senegal ratified this agreement in 1978.

Concern has also been expressed by Human Rights Watch about the safety of the men, who were apparently beaten whilst in police custody. Human Rights Watch is calling for the nine men to be separated from other prisoners for as long as they remain in custody and to receive appropriate health care, including HIV treatment if this is needed.

Senegal is far from being the only African country to deny civil rights to lesbians and gays. Last year, gay rights activists were arrested at the HIV Implementers’ meeting in Uganda after protesting about a Ugandan government announcement that gay and other men who have sex with men would have no HIV resources directed towards them. The HIV prevalence rate amongst gay men in Uganda is 26% and one of the themes of last year’s International AIDS Conference in Mexico City was the disproportionate impact of HIV on gay and other men who have sex with men in resource-limited settings. The conference heard that even in countries with generalised HIV epidemics, the prevalence was higher amongst gay and other men who have sex with men than in the general population.

The Senegalese arrests “will have a chilling effect on AIDS programs”, said Scott Long, Human Rights Watch, who highlighted that there was “panic” in a number of Senegalese HIV organisations, particularly those working with gay and other men who have sex with men and other vulnerable groups.

Human Rights Watch says, “laws criminalizing consensual sexual conduct drive these vulnerable populations underground and permit gross violations of the fundamental rights to life, freedom of expression and association, and health.”