Amnesty International has warned that the nine Senegalese men released from prison last week after being jailed for “indecent conduct and unnatural acts” are at risk of homophobic attacks.

Welcoming the decision to release them, Veronique Aubert, deputy director of the Africa Programme, said that the country’s authorities must take efforts to protect them.

“These nine men were prisoners of conscience, sentenced solely on the basis of alleged sexual conduct, and should never have been jailed in the first place,” she said.

“The decision by Court of Appeal in Dakar to release them after they initially received an eight-year sentence is welcome. But it needs to be followed by concrete action from the authorities to ensure the men are safe from possible homophobic attacks.”

According to the organisation, the media and an Islamic group have been distributing literature calling them “perverts” and claiming they are spreading AIDS.

Radio programmes have broadcast messages inciting listeners to attack anyone accused of being gay.

The men, most of whom belong to a group set up to combat HIV/AIDS, were arrested in December at the apartment of Diadji Diouf, a prolific LGBT leader, and sentenced in January.

Last week, Dakar’s court of appeal ordered the arrest warrants against the men to be lifted and ruled they must be released immediately.

Gay rights groups believe the eight-year sentence originally given to the men is the harshest ever handed down to anyone accused of gay crimes.

Homosexual acts are punishable by imprisonment of between one and five years in Senegal.