updated 8/10/2007 10:11:33 PM ET 2007-08-11T02:11:33

Eighteen men face charges of sodomy in a Nigerian Islamic court after they were arrested while allegedly preparing to take part in a gay wedding, state media reported.

Gay sex is illegal across Nigeria, and defendants convicted under the Muslim code, called Shariah, may face death by stoning. However, no Shariah court-ordered execution has been carried out since the Islamic law was implemented in 12 northern Nigeria states seven years ago.

The 18 men were arrested on Aug. 5 in remote northern Bauchi state, where they were found with women's apparel as they prepared for a gay wedding, Nigeria's state news agency reported.

The men were charged Wednesday in a Bauchi Shariah court, where they pleaded innocent, the news agency reported late Thursday.

Nigeria's 140 million people are nearly evenly divided between Christians, who predominate in the south, and Muslims, who predominate in the north. Shariah was implemented in a dozen northern states after the return to civilian rule in 1999, following years of oppressive military regimes.

President Umaru Yar'Adua, a Muslim who succeeded a Christian leader when he took power May 29, was governor of one of those states, Katsina.

Yar'Adua has not spoken publicly about Shariah since becoming a presidential candidate last year. But he has said he is committed to continuing the rule of his predecessor, Olusegun Obasanjo.

Obasanjo believed that Shariah contravened Nigeria's secular constitution. He said he would never allow capital or other serious punishment allowed under Shariah to take place.

Nigeria is a deeply conservative country where homosexuality runs counter to many people's beliefs, both Muslim and Christian.

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