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DAKAR, Senegal (AP) â€” Senegalese police detained five women accused of violating the country's anti-gay law, highlighting increased pressure on suspected lesbians in the deeply conservative West African nation, an activist group said Tuesday.
The five women were detained early Monday morning during a birthday party at a restaurant in Dakar's Yoff district that has been described in the Senegalese press as a meeting point for gay men and lesbians, said Ndeye Kebe, president of the activist group Women's Smile.
The oldest of the suspects, 31-year-old Sene Dieng, is an assistant director at Women's Smile, the only group in Senegal to advocate for lesbians' rights.
The five women were expected to appear in court Tuesday, though Kebe said they had been unable to afford a lawyer.
Senegal's penal code calls for prison sentences of up to five years and fines of up to $3,000 for committing "an improper or unnatural act with a person of the same sex." Since 2008, the Muslim-majority country has been gripped by what Human Rights Watch describes as an anti-gay "moral panic," with arrests and mob justice on the rise.
As in other sub-Saharan African countries that enforce laws criminalizing homosexual acts, Senegalese police have primarily targeted gay men for arrest and extortion, and raids against suspected lesbians are fairly rare.
Kebe said, however, that suspected lesbians have been under mounting pressure in the wake of several scandals that have garnered significant media attention. Earlier this year, for example, a man who discovered cell-phone footage of his 18-year-old girlfriend kissing another woman posted it online, Kebe said, forcing the girlfriend to flee the country when the story spread.
"In Senegal when we talk about homosexuality we are usually talking about men, and we forget about the women," Kebe said. "But people are now on the hunt for lesbians."
So far this year, Women's Smile has been made aware of at least 30 women who have been interrogated by police on suspicion of violating Senegal's anti-gay law, though it is unclear how many were jailed.
The issue of gay rights in Senegal took center stage during a visit from United States President Barack Obama in June. At a joint press conference in Dakar, Senegalese President Macky Sall openly clashed with Obama on the issue of whether homosexual acts should be decriminalized, saying Senegal was "not ready" to take such a step. Sall insisted that gays in Senegal were only prosecuted if caught violating the law.
On Tuesday, at least one Senegalese newspaper reported that the five arrested women had been caught committing homosexual acts in public. Kebe, who has been in touch with Dieng by phone since the raid, said that allegation was dubious.
"The women said they were just sitting at a table," Kebe said. "There were more than 100 people at the bar, and the police went directly to their table."
She added that she suspected the police had been tipped off, perhaps by staff at the restaurant familiar with Dieng's work organizing events for Women's Smile.
Senegalese officials declined to comment on the case prior to the women's court appearance scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.