BAUCHI, Nigeria (Reuters) - Eighteen Nigerian men accused of dressing up as women during a party at a hotel went on trial Tuesday before an Islamic sharia court in the northern state of Bauchi.
Dozens of residents shouted abuse and hurled stones at the men as they were escorted into an armored prison vehicle after the hearing, prompting police to fire tear-gas at the crowd.
The men, mostly in their 20s, were arrested in a Bauchi hotel on August 4. Police say they were dressed as women, which is illegal under the state’s sharia penal code.
The offence is punishable by up to a year in prison and 20 lashes by cane.
The accused, who tried to hide their faces as they were jeered on their way in and out of court, deny the charge. One of them told Reuters they went to the hotel for a graduation party.
Muhammad Bununu of the Hisbah Commission, a body charged with enforcing sharia law in the state, told reporters the accused were “addressing each other as women and dressing themselves as women.”
“They said they went to the hotel to witness a wedding between a male and a male,” he said.
The police brought handbags and suitcases containing women’s high-heel shoes and clothing to the court as evidence.
The 18 are not formally charged with homosexuality, which is illegal in Nigeria and considered immoral by the vast majority of people, both Muslims and Christians.
Bauchi is one of 12 states in the predominantly Muslim north that started a stricter enforcement of sharia law in 2000 — a decision that alienated sizeable Christian minorities and sparked bouts of sectarian violence that killed thousands.
Sharia courts have been active for centuries but under British colonial rule their powers were curtailed. In the 12 states, they regained the right to impose strict punishments such as death for adultery or sodomy and amputation for theft.
Only one man, a convicted murderer hanged in 2002, is known to have been executed under sharia law since it was reinforced in the 12 states.
Nigerian media had originally reported that the 18 men arrested in Bauchi were charged with sodomy and facing death by stoning, raising concerns among human rights groups who sent observers to Tuesday’s hearings.
But Bununu said the reports were incorrect.
Judge Tanimu Abubakar adjourned the case until September 13 to allow time for a Bauchi state prosecutor who is taking over from the police to familiarize himself with the evidence.