According to media reports, in Bangladesh 27 men have been arrested for being gay, a crime punishable by life imprisonment.
The men, mostly students aged 20 to 30, had traveled across the country to hold a party at a community centre in Keraniganj, outside the country’s capital of Dhaka.
The arrests were made by the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite police unit repeatedly described by Human Rights Watch as a government “death squad”.
Commander Zahangir Hossain Matobbar of the unit’s tenth division said illegal drugs and condoms were recovered in the men’s possession.
The police plan to charge the suspects with drug offenses, not homosexuality, because they were detained before they engaged in sex, Associated Press has reported.
The elite unit also revealed it had arrested the owner of the community centre for their part in making the party possible.
As reported by the Washington Post, 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.
Last year, suspected militants killed a leading LGBT activist and his friend in Dhaka, reports The Independent.
The 35-year-old Xulhaz Mannan, a USAID official, was hacked to death in April last year at his home. He had founded the country’s only LGBT magazine Roopbaan and was a leading organiser of gays, who are ostracised in Bangladesh.
Since then, many of the gays and lesbians have left the country after they received death threats. Many still live double lives to avoid reprisals.