Human Rights Watch has condemned the arrest and imprisonment of eight men in Mauritania for “committing indecent acts” and “inciting debauchery” at a party.
The men were convicted in the Northwest African country on 30 January after a video showing them celebrating a birthday party in a restaurant led to their arrest. The court sentenced all eight to two years in prison.
Police arrested the eight men and two other people on January 23, three days after the video circulated on social media.
While the Western Nouakchott police commissioner, Mohamed Ould Nejib, acknowledged in a television interview on January 22 that the event was not a same-sex wedding, as had been reported on social media, but a birthday celebration, he stated that the people were arrested for “imitating women.”
“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.”
The eight men were sentenced to two years for “indecency” and “inciting debauchery” under articles 264 and 306 of the penal code. One woman received a one-year suspended sentence for participating in inciting debauchery by being present at the event. The restaurant owner was acquitted.
Human Rights Watch spoke with Mohammed Ould Obeid, the defendants’ lawyer, and reviewed the police report, which refers to eight of the men arrested for attending the party as “sodomisers” who were “imitating women.”
According to the police report, the eight men “confessed that they are homosexuals” during police interrogations, at which the defendants had no legal representation. Ould Obeid said that at the trial, the defendants pleaded not guilty to all charges and refuted allegations related to their sexual orientation.
Article 308 of the penal code prohibits homosexual conduct between Muslim adults and punishes it with death for males. No one has in recent years been sentenced to death for homosexual conduct.
On January 30, as a result of the matter being considered in flagrante delicto (caught in the act of committing a crime) based on the video posted online, the public prosecutor sent the case directly to trial the same day rather than to seek a preliminary judicial investigation.
Human Rights Watch said it has reviewed the video and that it shows people at a party singing and dancing but shows no behaviour anyone could object to as illegal as reasonably defined.
The organisation concluded that police arrested the men because of their appearance and behaviour, describing them in the report they submitted to the court as “imitating women” and “sodomisers.”
“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.”
On February 3, Ould Obeid filed an appeal on behalf of the defendants.