Senegal’s judicial doublespeak and homosexuality

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Nine homosexuals were sentenced to eight years behind bars, Tuesday, in Dakar, Senegal. The men were arrested in a flat on the outskirts of the Senegalese capital. Civil societies and human rights movements, concerned about the harsh sentences, have been mobilising efforts in favour of the nine men.

The Senegalese police arrested nine men on charges of homosexuality in an apartment on the outskirts of Dakar, December 19, following an alert. Homosexuality is a crime in Senegal, a largely Muslim country. Article 319 of the country’s penal code states that “whoever commits an impure act or an unnatural act with another person of the same sex” risks “a five year prison term” and a fine between 100,000 F CFA and 1,000,000 F CFA (i.e. between 150 and 1500 euros).

The sentence pronounced, Tuesday, against the men was not only severe but out of touch with the law itself. “Gathering of criminals?”. “As homosexuality is a crime while homosexuals are considered as criminals, a gathering of homosexuals is seen as a gathering of criminals by the justice system”, Joël Nana, director of advocacy and research in Africa with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

Sentence defies state laws

The prosecution had asked for a five-year sentence for all those accused, but the judge decided to condemn them to eight years in prison with a 500,000 FCFA fine. This sentence is considered to be the heaviest of its sort in the history of Senegal, Me Issa Diop, one of the four defence lawyers, told the AFP. “Associating criminals with the accusation was the judge’s alibi to override the law and impose a heavier sentence than what the prosecution demanded. I think that the judge took his decision based on homophobia and his own beliefs”, continued Joël Nana.

Me Issa Diop says he will appeal the verdict. Meanwhile, gay and lesbian human rights societies have largely condemned the sentences. “We fiercely protest against these human rights violations, which go against all the terms of the human rights agreements signed by Senegal. Not forgetting that the same country is one of the recipients of funds from the World Bank in the fight against HIV/AIDS among homosexuals in Senegal”, Says, Joël Nana who’s organisation is mobilising itself to support the the jailed men.

Greenlight to maltreat gaymen

International support is growing. “We have informed the French diplomatic authorities. They have been relatively active, especially in terms of guaranteeing an equitable prosecution which respects the right to defence. A cursory look at the information gathered by the defence reveals that the defence lawyers were not given ample time to study the case” Phillipe Colom, member of the French organisation, Solidarité Internationale LGBT (lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals), told Afrik .

Some homosexuals dream of leaving Senegal to freedom. This scenario is reminiscent of mass arrests that took place in Senegal between 2007 and 2008, when a tabloid, Icône, published photographs of an alleged gay marriage. Although those arrested were all released, presumed homosexuals among them were brutally assaulted before their release. This and Tuesday’s sentence has led Joël Nana to think of the worst case scenario: “With these sentences, the leaders have given a green light to the Senegalese population to maltreat homosexuals and even those presumed to be gay. It shows that homosexuals do not have the same rights”.

Fight against HIV/AIDS in danger

Consequences emanating from sentences of this sort will be disastrous to public health. “These arrests and sentences will render any form of HIV/AIDS campaign in the homosexual community ineffective as they won’t dare step outside to seek any kind of help. Moreover, Diadji’s apartment (Diadji was among those arrested) was used as a meeting place for gays and volunteers working together to fight against HIV/AIDS. It was a place where homosexuals could obtain preventive materials and where HIV positive homosexuals could also get a frequent supply of medications”, underlined Joel Nana.

Senegal finds itself in total contradiction to the pledge it made during the International Conference on AIDS and STD’s, which took place between the 3rd and 7th of December, 2008. During the conference the Minister of Health and Prevention alongside numerous other local stakeholders called for the inclusion of Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) in the framework of the fight against HIV/AIDS. Tuesday’s verdict proves that Senegal’s policies do not go hand in glove with its penal system in what concerns relations between people of the same sex. Dakar is left with one choice: prevention or punishment.

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