A senior official of the UN organisation tasked with fighting the AIDS epidemic has said he is looking forward to the “safe and imminent release” of three gay rights activists who forced their way into an international conference about HIV/AIDS prevention in Uganda last week.

Pepe Juliana Onzema, Usaam Mukwaya and Valantini Katende were taken to Jinja Road Police Station on Thursday night.

Their protest was sparked when the head of Uganda’s AIDS commission said that gay people are driving up the number of infections in the country, but would not be targeted with prevention work.

Dr. Michel Sidibe, the deputy executive director of UNAIDS, told Saturday Vision:

“I do not know if they were gay.

“But if they were not registered for the meeting and wanted to be part of the movement fighting against AIDS, Uganda is known as a country of openness. I do not want this incident to overshadow the national efforts.”

The international meeting was organised by an international group including the US, the World Bank, the UN.

More than a million of Uganda’s 27 million people are already HIV+.

“We consider these three to be prisoners of conscience, detained for their peaceful activism,” said Kate Allen, Amnesty UK’s director.

The director of Physicians for Human Rights, which advocates for HIV prevention for all, also condemned their arrest.

“Everyone deserves the right to health, including marginalised groups subject to discrimination,” said Frank Donaghue.

“Advocates need to be encouraged and supported, not arrested. They are HIV experts in their own communities and they are trying to save lives.”

Government officials have regularly threatened and harassed lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Ugandans.

Uganda’s penal code carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for homosexual conduct, while ‘attempts’ at carnal knowledge get seven years of imprisonment.