Eight men have been convicted of ‘committing indecent acts’ and ‘inciting debauchery’ in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania after a video of them dancing at a party, originally thought to be a gay wedding, was shared on social media.
A local police commissioner acknowledged in a television interview on 22 January that this was not a gay wedding as was first believed, but said that the men had been arrested for ‘imitating women.’
In addition to the eight men’s two year jail sentences, a woman received a one-year suspended sentence for ‘inciting debauchery’ by being present at the event. The owner of the restaurant shown in the video was acquitted.
‘Mauritania’s authorities have no business sending someone to prison for attending a peaceful birthday celebration,’ said Graeme Reid, the LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch. ‘They should immediately release all those who were sentenced to two years for attending this party.’
When the video first circulated online it was met with much public outcry, as people thought it was Mauritania’s first gay wedding.
At that time, there was a very real possibility that the men shown in the video could be sentenced to death.
Mauritania practices strict Islamic law, known as Shariah law, and homosexual conduct between Muslim adults is punishable by death for men, but a de facto moratorium is in place on capital punishment in the country.
The case shows a rare enforcement of Islamic Law in Mauritania, which according to Human Rights Watch has seen no known cases of people being jailed or sentenced to death for homosexual acts.
In the report submitted by the police to the courts, the party goers were described as ‘imitating women’ and as ‘sodomizers.’
‘The authorities appear to have imprisoned the eight defendants on the basis that singing and dancing at a birthday party is a crime in Mauritania,’ Reid said.
‘Mauritania can’t shy away from its obligations to protect basic rights of all its citizens without discrimination.’
According to the police report, the men admitted to being homosexual, but had no legal representation at the time.
At the trial, the defendants all pleaded not guilty and recounted their earlier statements.
‘It is a serious attack on the individual and collective freedom of these young people who have the right to display their difference and intimate preferences,’ said Brahim Bilal, the president of a human rights organization in Mauritania.
Over half of sub-Saharan African countries, 28 out of 49, forbid homosexuality, and in several it is punishable by death.
In recent years however, there has been a trend of countries becoming more accepting, with Angola, Mozambique and the Seychelles legalising homosexuality.