Laws against homosexual conduct damage HIV- and AIDS-prevention efforts as well as the work of human rights defenders, Human Rights Watch said today.

Nine men who were involved in HIV-prevention work were sentenced to jail terms in Dakar on January 6th on charges of “indecent and unnatural acts” and “forming associations of criminals.”

“These charges will have a chilling effect on AIDS programmes,” said Scott Long, director of Human Rights Watch’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights programme.

“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.”

HIV and AIDS advocates in Senegal report that the ruling has produced widespread panic among organisations addressing HIV and AIDS, particularly those working with men who have sex with men and other marginalised populations.

The men were detained on December 19, 2008, after several police officers burst into the private residence of an HIV outreach worker some miles outside Dakar at 11 p.m. and arrested all nine men in the house.

The police confiscated condoms and lubricants – tools used for HIV-prevention work. The police forced several of the men to disclose family members’ phone numbers and threatened to inform their families. Sources told Human Rights Watch that the men were beaten in detention, which would constitute a significant violation of Senegal’s international human rights obligations.

The men were charged with violating article 319.3 of Senegal’s penal code, which provides that “whoever commits an improper or unnatural act with a person of the same sex will be punished by imprisonment of between one and five years.”

Reports received by Human Rights Watch indicate that the men were not engaged in any activity considered criminal under Senegalese law.

At the trial, prosecutors apparently used the materials found in the house that are standard HIV-prevention tools used in outreach work as evidence of homosexual conduct, for which the men received the maximum five-year sentence. They were also found guilty of “criminal association” in violation of article 238 of the penal code, permitting the judge to add three years to their five-year term.

“Senegal’s sodomy law invades privacy, criminalises health work, justifies brutality, and feeds fear,” said Long. “This case shows why it is time for the sodomy law to go.”