Religious police in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have detained more than 20 men after a raid on a property in the coastal town of Qatif.

Newspaper Al-Medina reports that quantities of alcohol were seized at a gathering of young men and that many more were initially arrested on homosexuality charges but later released.

21 remain in custody.

The state Commission for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice was acting on a tip off.

In Saudi Arabia, homosexuality is illegal under sharia, or Islamic Law.

The maximum sentence it carries is the death penalty and this is most commonly performed by public beheading.

Gay rights are not recognised in the kingdom and the publication of any material promoting them is banned for its “un-Islamic” themes.

With strict laws restricting unmarried opposite-sex couples, however, and public displays of affection accepted between men, some Westerners have suggested that sharia encourages homosexuality.

In April 2006 a court in Saudi Arabia sentenced two Saudis, one Yemeni and a Jordanian to two years in jail and 2,000 lashes after a police raid on an alleged gay party.

In October two men were publicly flogged in Saudi Arabia after being found guilty of sodomy and sentenced to 7,000 lashes.

Human rights activist Peter Tatchell criticised the excessive punishment.

“7,000 lashes is a form of torture, calculated to cause maximum, prolonged suffering,” he said.

“So many lashes can be fatal, depending on how many are delivered at any one time.

“As well as flogging and executing gay people, the Saudi leaders are guilty of detention without trial, torture and the public beheading women who have sex outside of marriage.

“Trade unions, political parties and non-Muslim religions are banned. The country is a theocratic police state.

“The British and US governments support the despotic, corrupt Saudi regime.”