Gays under threat in Senegal

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.”

Hostility towards homosexuality is nothing new in Senegal. Photos of an underground gay wedding published by a Senegalese magazine last year spurred arrests and violence against gay men. Many have said the harsh eight-year sentences dolled out by the first judge not only reflected his personal prejudices but were also meant to serve as a warning for others.

Despite the men’s release, health and human rights groups are concerned about what the case could mean for the future of HIV/AIDS prevention work in Senegal, particularly in the homosexual community, one of the hardest hit by the disease.

“This has created a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety, threats against the activists in the community. It will take time to build that back up, so that they can ... be certain that they can go about their AIDS prevention work in safe conditions,” said Daouda Diouf, head of the HIV/AIDS community response team at Enda Tiers Monde, a nonprofit organization.

As part of the team advocating for the men’s release and helping them seek refuge since then, Diouf and his organization have also been the targets of public rage. Getting the men out of Senegal will be difficult, not only for financial reasons but also because it must be done in secret — homophobia pervades even police and airport staff, Diouf said.

“They are in danger,” Diouf said. “It’s hard to hear people say such horrible things, such hate, but we [Enda] are still committed.”

Sensationalism in the media created confusion about the details of the case and fanned the flames of religious fervor and public hostility, Diouf said. Though acceptance of homosexuality is still many years away, he is optimistic it will come to Senegal, as it has to other countries.

“The question of homosexuality is a taboo question in Senegal,” Diouf said. “We will certainly have to take into consideration the realities of Senegalese society when we talk about [it]. There’s no question that we must confront this issue.”

Still, religious leaders like Niang insist the issue is not negotiable.

“This liberation has angered Senegalese,” Niang said. “It’s not wise to force an acceptance of homosexuality in Senegal. That risks inciting Senegalese to take the law into their own hands when faced with the failure of state justice.

“Believe me that the population is going to seek its own justice and that that justice will be much harsher," Niang said.

More GlobalPost dispatches from Senegal:

Senegal avoids human rights trial

Dakar hit by shortage of cooking gas

Senegalese press: oppressed or out of control?