Macky Sall, the new president of Senegal who takes office this week, has been called on to improve the legal protection for gay and lesbian people in his country.

The group Human Rights Watch wrote an open letter to the president congratulating him on his election victory and calling on him to address several rights issues as he takes office.

Among them is the repeal of Article 319.3 of the west African state’s penal code, which makes gay acts illegal by criminalising “indecent acts” and “acts against nature” with a punishment of between one and five years in prison.

The letter says: “In February 2008, police arrested 19 men in Dakar solely on the basis of photos that appeared in a magazine alleging they had attended a “gay marriage.” Police threatened to kill the men, and ill-treated them in custody before releasing them.

“In December 2008, police arrested nine men in Mbao who were attending a training on HIV/AIDS prevention. The men spent four months in detention. Police tortured them, forcing several of them to strip naked and beating some of them with batons so brutally that they could not sit for days; one victim said a police officer sexually assaulted him.

“In addition to these two noteworthy incidents, a number of other men in Senegal told Human Rights Watch they had been arrested on the mere suspicion of being gay. Several were beaten with batons and one man said police tortured him by sticking needles under his nails.

It adds: “In light of evidence that the criminalization of homosexuality is an impediment to HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, as well as a violation of the rights to privacy and non-discrimination that are guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the new government should review with a view to repealing Article 319.3 of the Penal Code, and should consider passing anti-discrimination legislation that protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Human Rights Watch said the Senegalese government has an obligation to protect the basic rights of all citizens, including gay and transgender people. The new government, it said, should immediately put a halt to police violence against and “arbitrary arrests” as well as ensuring that violence against gays is tackled.

Mr Sall won a run-off election last month against incumbent president Abdoulaye Wade and is due to be inaugurated in Dakar today.