Police in Bangladesh stormed a community center outside the capital of Dhaka early Friday and arrested 27 men. Their crime? They’re suspected of being gay.
Zahangir Hossain Matobbar, the commander of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion, told the Associated Press that the suspects — mostly students between the ages of 20 and 30 — were arrested at the community center where they apparently gathered every two months to “stay overnight for partying.”
Police said they recovered illegal drugs and condoms in their possession and the men would be charged with drug offenses rather than Bangladesh’s colonial-era sodomy law, because they were detained before they had sex, the AP report said.
However, a different RAB spokesman told Agence France-Presse that the men had been arrested “for homosexuality” and that it had not yet been determined how they would be formally charged.
Homosexual acts are illegal in Muslim-majority Bangladesh — as in more than 70 other countries in the world, including neighboring India. The mass arrests come on the heels of a recent high-profile case in Indonesia, where two men were sentenced to public lashings for gay sex under a strict new provincial sharia law.
Bangladesh’s legal code prohibits “unnatural offenses,” which it says includes voluntary “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal.” The offense is punishable with life in prison.
The law is rarely enforced, but LGBT groups have reported that police use the law as a pretext to bully gay or simply effeminate individuals to prevent the formation of LGBT organizations, according to a 2016 U.S. State Department report on human rights practices from its Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
A nascent gay rights movement that included pride rallies and the country’s first LGBT magazine, Roopbaan, crashed to a halt last year, when one of its founders, 35-year-old Xulhaz Mannan, a USAID official, was hacked to death by suspected Islamist extremists.
“The bloody assault was a sickening reminder that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights — the right to live and love as one wishes — are viewed dimly in many nations and societies around the world,” The Washington Post editorial board wrote of Mannan’s death at the time.
Extremist organizations claiming links to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have targeted members of the LGBT community along with religious minorities, foreigners and high-profile academics in a series of hacking deaths and assaults since 2015.
A 2016 report by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association found that same-sex sexual contact is a criminal offense in 74 countries, and that homosexuality is punishable by death in 12 nations.