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Gays under threat in Senegal

Local youth leader: "The homosexuals will not escape lynching. They will be fish food."

Anti-gay demonstrators shout slogans at a protest outside Dakar's main mosque Feb. 15, 2008. The protest was sparked after the gossip magazine "Icone" published photos of a gay wedding in the mostly Muslim nation, where homosexuality is illegal. (Normand Blouin/Reuters)

DAKAR, Senegal — A mob gathered near a mosque outside Dakar. They were there to hunt down and kill nine men accused of homosexual acts.

Earlier this week the nine Senegalese AIDS activists were freed from eight-year-prison terms for alleged homosexual acts, but they went into hiding because of death threats from Muslim religious leaders and the general population.

“The homosexuals will not escape lynching. They will be fish food,” Dakar newspaper L'Observateur quoted a local youth leader as saying.

“Gay men will never be free in Senegal. They expose us all to danger,” said Imam Mbaye Niang, a prominent religious leader and member of parliament. “The judges should understand that Senegalese people need to protect their children, their families from homosexuality.”

In Senegal — where 95 percent of the population is Muslim — homosexual acts are punishable by fines and up to five years in prison. In January, the nine men received the harshest sentence yet for such an offense in Senegal, getting the maximum of five years and an additional three for criminal conspiracy.

Though widely supported in Senegal, the conviction was condemned by international human rights groups and foreign governments, most notably France.

“They were judged and condemned very severely, surely on the basis of public outcry, therefore the justice was neither objective nor founded in law,” said lead defense attorney Barim Sassoum Sy, who called the initial ruling hasty and emotional.

A Dakar appeals court overturned that decision Monday, citing violations of legal protocol.

Acting on an anonymous tip, police had arrested the men — most of whom do HIV prevention work in the "men having sex with men" community — in December at the home of a prominent gay activist. But the police did not have a search warrant, nor did they catch the men in the act, which is required by the Senegalese law prohibiting “indecent acts against nature." The judge hearing the appeal therefore declared their convictions null and void, Sy said.

Yet even as smiling attorneys and supporters celebrated in the packed courtroom Monday and exchanged congratulations, plans were already in place to get the freed men into hiding outside Dakar.

“The first judge sentenced them to eight years,” said Imam Niang. “He had the courage to say it. The judge that let them go was much less courageous. He yielded to international pressure.”

Niang said that in Islam, the punishment for homosexuality is death. To be gay is a choice, he said, adding that he believes homosexuality is an impure, corruptive force threatening to infect Senegalese society, particularly its youth.

“In our society, homosexuality will never be accepted,” Niang said. “Our religion forbids it, so we can never accept it, even if it is accepted everywhere else in the world.”