The trial of eighteen young men in Nigeria charged with dressing in female clothing and attending a gay wedding may be part of a campaign to reintroduce legislation targeting lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

Cary Alan Johnson of the Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) was in Nigeria last week to meet the men and their lawyers.

He has expressed serious doubts as to whether the men can get a fair trial.

All aged between 18 and 21, they were detained by the Islamic “vice squad” at a hotel in Bauchi city, Nigeria in August 2007.

Bauchi is a Muslim state in the centre of Nigeria, with a population of 316,000.

Sharia law is enforced in the state and if found guilty of sodomy the men could be executed.

They instead face charges of criminal conspiracy, membership of an unlawful society, indecent acts, and “vagabondage”, which relates to the allegation they were dressed in female attire.

They face to up to ten years imprisonment and more than 100 lashes and a charge of sodomy could be instituted at any time, according to IGLHRC.

The man are on bail, having spent 19 days in jail, and are due to appear in court again on March 24th.

The men deny that they were dressed in female clothing or that they were organising or attending a gay wedding.

They argue that the event was a combination birthday/graduation party for a local man (who was not present at the time of the raid and has not been arrested) and the celebration of the marriage of his sister.

“These men are being railroaded by the authorities,” said Mr Johnson.

“Contradicting their own statements, the police first said that the men were all dressed in women’s clothing, then that articles of female clothing and cosmetics were found in their belongings, which somehow proves that they were engaging in same sex marriage and homosexuality.

“The rhetoric of the police and court authorities are confusing, at best, and attempt to incite the public against the young men by conflating the concepts of ‘homosexuality,’ ‘cross-dressing’ and ‘gay marriage’.”

The case has received considerable press attention in Nigeria.

Bauchi state has already convicted three people to death by stoning for sexual offences and an agency who oversee the implementation of Sharia law is pressing for the sentences to be carried out.

In Nigeria, the governor in a Muslim state must give his approval for some of the harsher penalties handed down by Sharia courts, such as execution or amputation.

Predominantly Muslim states in Nigeria introduced Sharia law, a legal system based on Islamic theory and philosophy of justice, in 2000.

In reality the re-introduction of harsh punishments apart from the death penalty has been the main feature of sharia courts.

In Bauchi state alone there are 40 people awaiting amuputation of one or both hands for theft.

“The arrests maybe part of the state government’s campaign to reintroduce a remarkably dangerous anti-homosexuality bill,” IGLHRC said in a statement.

“Last year, the Nigerian National Assembly debated the “Bill for an Act to make provisions for the prohibition of sexual relationship between persons of the same-sex, celebration of marriage by them and for other matters connected herewith,” commonly referred to as the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act of 2006.

“The bill criminalises same-sex marriage as well as the “registration of gay clubs, societies and organisations by whatever name they are called” and any “publicity, procession and public show of same-sex amorous relationship through the electronic or print media physically, directly, indirectly or otherwise.”

“After effective advocacy by the consortium of local, national and international partners, the Assembly failed to bring the bill for a final vote and with the dissolution of the legislature it died, pending potential reintroduction.

“Even though it did not pass, the bill has served as an incitement to violence and discrimination against LGBT individuals, and more generally, toward individuals whose behaviours do not fit within typical sexual or gender norms.”