A Mauritanian court has jailed eight men for two years for "committing indecent acts" after a video showed them at a gay birthday party, their lawyer and Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Monday.
The party at a restaurant in the capital Nouakchott on January 11 was initially described as the first "gay wedding" in the history of semi-desert country, which bans homosexual behaviour between Muslim adults.
Police later said the occasion was the birthday party "of a homosexual to which he invited only those like him".
Video footage of the party went viral on social media, in the local press and in that of neighbouring countries such as Senegal, which is mostly Muslim like Mauritania.
Ten people accused of attending the party were arrested 10 days later and charged with "committing indecent acts" and "inciting debauchery," HRW said.
The police appear to have arrested the men on the basis of their appearance and behaviour, describing them in the report they submitted to court as "imitating women" and "sodomisers," the rights group said in a statement.
The defendants' lawyer, Mohamed Ould Obeid, told AFP that eight of them received two-year jail terms on following a little publicised trial on January 30.
He said he appealed the verdict on behalf of his clients, who had pleaded not guilty.
"Mauritania's authorities have no business sending someone to prison for attending a peaceful birthday celebration," HRW's director for LGBT rights, Graeme Reid, said in a statement, demanding the defendants' "immediate release".
Mauritania's criminal code, based on Islamic Sharia law, describes sexual relations between gay men as "acts against nature", punishable by death by stoning. However, a 2018 report by HRW said the former French colony appeared to be observing a "de facto moratorium" on capital punishment as well as corporal punishments inspired by the Sharia.
More than half the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, 28 out of 49, forbid homosexuality including several where it is punishable by death.
Mauritanian society tolerates gays and lesbians in certain circumstances, but they are for the most part ostracised and tend to keep a low profile.
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