NAIROBI, 23 April 2009 (PlusNews) – International rights groups have welcomed the release of nine AIDS activists in Senegal, who were sentenced in January for their sexual orientation.

On 20 April, an appeals court in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, overturned the convictions of the men, each sentenced to eight years in prison, on charges of ‘membership of a criminal organization and engaging in acts against the order of nature’.

Most of the defendants were involved in HIV programmes targeting men who have sex with men; they were arrested at the home of a prominent AIDS activist in December 2008.

‘We welcome the release of the men, who may return to their families and continue their invaluable work in the fight against HIV,’ said Dr Julio Montaner, president of the International AIDS Society, which promotes HIV research and best practice and is the custodian of the International AIDS Conference.

‘However, we continue to be dismayed at the upholding of laws which allow the criminalization of homosexuality, and we call on the government of Senegal, and other countries with similar regulations, to overturn these immediately in the interests of public health and human rights,’ he said.

Homosexuality is punishable by up to five years in prison in Senegal.