Senegal overturns jail sentences for 9 gay men

DAKAR, April 20 (Reuters) - Senegal's court of appeal has overturned the jail sentences of nine homosexuals arrested in December, according to a statement released by UNAIDS on Monday.

The nine men had been sentenced to eight-year prison terms in January for "acts against nature and the creation of an association of criminals", sparking criticism from diplomats and international organisations like Human Rights Watch and UNAIDS.

"The decision should be a model for the African continent and the world in the fight against discrimination against men who have sex with men," said Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, the United Nations agency charged with tackling AIDS.

The decision was taken on Monday but it was not clear when the men would be freed. Senegal's ministry of justice was not immediately available for comment about the case.

Police arrested the men in December at the Dakar home of a prominent gay rights and anti-AIDS activist.

The rights groups, which were joined in their criticism of the sentences by the French and other European diplomats in Dakar, said the charges were a violation of human rights and harmful to development efforts in the country.

"The decision is an entry point for social reform and social change," Sidibe said on Monday, adding that the ruling was a result of Senegal's internal democratic institutions as well as pressure from international organisations.

"Senegal is an independent country. We used continuing advocacy to work towards the release of the men, but groups within Senegal did so as well," he said.

Homosexuality is illegal and taboo in the former French colony, where 94 percent of the population is Muslim, according to CIA data. (Reporting by Joseph Penney; editing by David Lewis and Tim Pearce)