The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two Pakistani men say they got ‘married’ as a joke. Now they could face life in prison.

Pakistani security officials stand guard outside a mosque in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, after assailants opened fire on worshipers on May 25, 2015. (Jemal Tarakai/EPA)

It may have been a joke, but two men are now locked up in Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province because they got married to each other — or at least acted as if they did.

They might have to stay behind bars for the rest of their lives.

The men were arrested this week after reports surfaced that they had wed — a first in the conservative region, Baluchistan police told local media. Police also arrested a man who allegedly officiated the ceremony, according to Baluchistan Express, a newspaper in Quetta.

The men told authorities that the wedding was not serious, the report said. Even so, after arresting them, authorities forced the men to undergo medical examinations. Based on the results, police believe they had sex with each other,  the newspaper reported.

In Pakistan, homosexuality is considered a crime against both the state and Islam. The men are charged under Section 377 of Pakistan’s penal code, which, though it doesn’t specifically mention homosexuality, covers “unnatural offenses.”

“Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which shall not be less than two years nor more than ten years, and shall also be liable to fine,” the act states.

But prosecution of such offenses is rare. And homosexual behavior is thought to be fairly common in Pakistan, both in cities as well as in more rural, conservative communities.

In 2013, the BBC aired a story in which it said Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, was a “gay man’s paradise.”

“Underground parties, group sex at shrines and ‘marriages of convenience’ to members of the opposite sex are just some of the surprises that gay Pakistan has to offer,” the BBC wrote in an online version of the story. “Under its veneer of strict social conformity, the country is bustling with same-sex activity.”

The BBC story quoted Pakistanis who said that, because of the conservative nature of their country, where adolescent males generally do not socialize with unrelated females before marriage, young males' first sexual experience is often with other males.

In larger cities such as Karachi,  some same-sex couples are also living together, according to the report.

In more rural areas of Pakistan, homosexual behavior is considered more taboo, but it's still prevalent in some segments of society. Human rights officials have expressed alarm, for example, about tribal customs near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border that involve men seeking companionship from juvenile males.

Still, even if they engage in gay sex, most Pakistani men are expected to eventually get married. And most gay men remain closeted, fearing ridicule or violence should they ever be outed.

In 2005, two men in northwestern Pakistan were publicly lashed when they were caught having sex, according to a report from the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. Last year, an alleged serial killer was arrested in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, on suspicion that he killed three gay men he met online.

In an interview with Agence France-Presse from his jail cell, the suspect said he wanted to teach gays “a lesson.”

“My way was wrong. It is tragic that the families have lost their relatives, but they were spreading evil in society and I had to stop it,” the suspect said.

Pakistan’s government also has been unsympathetic to gays and lesbians globally. In March, Pakistan joined 42 other nations at the United Nations in voting against granting benefits to same-sex couples who work for the world body. Last year, Pakistan was one of just 14 nations to oppose a U.N. resolution expressing “grave concern” over the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender people around the globe.

But unlike some other Muslim nations, such as Egypt and Iran, Pakistan has largely shied away from government-sanctioned crackdowns on gays and lesbians.

At times, the issue even appears to divide local Pakistani police departments.

In an interview earlier this year, a police official in Islamabad said his department was launching undercover operations to crack down on what he described as a sharp increase in gay sex in the capital.

But a senior police commander who also was asked about the matter laughed, saying Islamabad police had far more pressing matters to deal with, including terrorism.

A previous version of this post incorrectly reported that the suspects were charged under section 277 of Pakistan's penal code. The post has been updated with the correct section, 377.