updated 1/8/2009 11:08:00 AM ET 2009-01-08T16:08:00

Nine men, including a prominent activist, have been convicted of homosexual acts and sentenced to eight years in prison, their lawyer and a gay rights group said Thursday.

Diadji Diouf, who heads an organization that provides HIV prevention services to gay men in Senegal, and the others were arrested last month in a raid on Diouf's apartment. The arrests came just weeks after Senegal hosted an international AIDS conference that included gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender participants.

Senegal, a primarily Muslim nation in West Africa, is one of 38 countries on the continent that criminalize homosexual acts, according to Joel Nana, Africa research and policy coordinator with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in Cape Town, South Africa. South Africa prompted a continentwide controversy in 2006 when it became the first African country to legalize gay marriage.

The nine convicted men were sentenced for unnatural acts and criminal conspiracy, said Nana.

"This is the first case that we've heard of in Senegal where people actually got sentenced," he said, calling the punishment long and harsh.

Attorney Issa Diop said his clients would appeal the sentences handed down late Tuesday.

"It is a deliberate will to penalize them," Diop said, noting that the maximum punishment for such cases in Senegal is set at five years.

Diouf's organization, AIDES Senegal, provides condoms and HIV treatment out of his home.

"It is a strong message of hatred, a strong message of division when we know it is critical at this point to address HIV in these communities," Nana said.

More on Senegal | HIV

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