Ten individuals, who Human Rights Watch (HRW) identified as eight men and “two other people,” who were seen dancing at a restaurant in Mauritania last month were arrested and the eight men were sentenced on January 30 to two years in prison for “committing indecent acts” and “inciting debauchery.”
Police originally targeted the 10 after the video — spread widely on social media and viewed by Gay City News — was mislabeled as representing a same-sex wedding in the Northwest African nation, which enforces Sharia law and restricts LGBTQ rights. Rather, it was merely a birthday party where individuals of different genders were dancing. That didn’t stop the local police commissioner, Mohamed Ould Nejib of Western Nouakchott, from claiming that the men were busted for “imitating women,” according to HRW.
Court documents described the men as “sodomizers” who, as Nejib charged, were “imitating women.”
The defendants were interrogated without legal representation and a police report said the eight men all admitted to being gay, HRW reported. An attorney who is now representing the men, who have refuted the claim they admitted to being gay, said his clients pleaded not guilty to the charges and have since filed an appeal.
Some discrepancies exist in the reporting of the arrests. While HRW reported that the prosecutor handling the cases sent the men to trial on January 30, where they were convicted the same day, the Associated Press reported the next day — on January 31 — that the men were only arrested.
Officially, Mauritania calls for the death penalty for men who engage in homosexual activity, but that law has not been enforced as of late, according to HRW. The nation’s constitution calls for freedom of expression, but that does not appear to extend to gender and sexual expression. There have been no reports suggesting that the men who were charged could face the death penalty.
“Mauritania’s authorities have no business sending someone to prison for attending a peaceful birthday celebration,” said Graeme Reid, the LGBTQ rights director at HRW, said in a statement posted on the organization’s website. “They should immediately release all those who were sentenced to two years for attending this party.”
The arrests came approximately three months after Mauritania joined the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, which is tasked with protecting and promoting human rights — including LGBTQ rights — around the world.
The news in Mauritania follows several disappointing developments emerging from the African continent in recent months. In December, Nigeria moved ahead with plans to try nearly 50 men arrested on homosexuality charges and Gabon implemented a new ban on gay sex. Meanwhile, US Ambassador to Zambia Daniel Foote was forced to withdraw from his role there after officials in his host nation charged him with interfering in their internal affairs for condemning the sentencing of two men to 15 years in prison on homosexuality charges. Michael Dodman, the US ambassador to Mauritania, has not offered any public statements about the arrests that followed circulation of the party video.
Some hints of progress were evident earlier last year when Botswana decriminalized sodomy, Angola unveiled a new penal code that noticeably lacked a ban on gay sex, and the Court of Appeals in Kenya affirmed a High Court ruling recognizing an LGBTQ organization.