Last edited: December 05, 2004
In Cairo, Egypt, on August 15, 2001, a trial is set to begin for 52 men jailed on charges ranging from "obscene behavior" to "contempt for religion." Some of the men could face up to eight years in prison. Sentences of the Emergency State Security Court which will hear their case brook no ordinary appeal.
The men were arrested in connection with a May 11, 2001 raid on a Cairo discotheque believed to be a gathering place for homosexuals. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) reported on their arrest days later in an Action Alert (see "Witch Hunt Underway: Dozens of Men Arrested, Held Incommunicado,"). IGLHRC and Human Rights Watch have also condemned the arrests in a joint statement (see "Egypt: Emergency Court Trials for Homosexual Suspects,"
The 52 men have endured persecution, and now face prison, because of their
alleged sexual orientation. Evidence suggests they may have been tortured in
detention. They have been steadily vilified in the State-directed media;
whatever possibility of a fair trial remained, given the arbitrariness of the
laws and procedures under which they were held, has been damaged beyond
repair. IGLHRC asks for URGENT letters to the Egyptian government calling for
the immediate release of the men; the dropping of all charges; and an end to
the repressive laws and extralegal practices which have enabled this travesty
IGLHRC asks for letters to the Egyptian government condemning the continuing persecution of the arrested men. ( A sample letter can be found in the following section.) Please write to:
Please see August 17, 2001 update regarding use of email.
Please also write to Egypts Embassies abroad. If your country is not in the list below, go to http://www.mfa.gov.eg/missions_a.asp?id=0505 to find contact information.
IGLHRC also endorses the call by Al-Fatihaan international organization of Muslims who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or questioning (LGBTQ)for an International Day of Solidarity and Mourning on August 15, 2001, as the trial opens.
At the same time, IGLHRC does not now endorse a boycott on Egyptian goods
or on tourism to Egypt. On some occasions, forms of pressure or protest which
disproportionately affect the peoples, rather than the governments, of States
may indeed be necessary means to achieve the freedom of those peoples. In
general, however, IGLHRC believes such economic pressure should be attempted
only after other means have failed. Tourism and export industries provide
livelihoods to millions of Egyptians who may be unaware of, or actively
opposed to, the repressive policies of their government. Moreover, to imply
that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered peopleor human rights
activists as a grouprelate to Egypt primarily as outside consumers or as
tourists may inadvertently reinforce the false and dangerous belief that
sexual difference, or reliance upon rights, are influences emanating from
beyond Egypts borders. IGLHRC believes that the best way to support the men
facing trial in Egypt is for individuals and their governments to voice their
condemnation directly to Egypts leaders.
The present case, with its rampant accusations of "perversion," perverts the rule of law. Although Egypt does not expressly criminalize homosexual acts, the 52 men are being tried under laws ordinarily used to target religious dissent, and laws targeting prostitution. The former are an unconscionable infringement of the rights to freedom of thought and of expression. The latter (comparable to repressive legislation persisting in numerous other countries) are used to eliminate the public presence of stigmatized groups; they unacceptably restrict the rights of expression, association, and assembly. The men face trial by a State Security Court, the creation of an Emergency Law enacted after the 1981 assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat; defendants cannot appeal to a higher tribunal. The State-controlled media have sensationalized the case, making a fair trial virtually impossible. And the States inflamed rhetoric as well as procedural misconduct have prevented many of the accused from gaining effective legal representation.
The governments heavy-handed handling of this case is hardly unique. Similar crackdowns on Islamist groupsusing similar emergency proceduresare a common occurrence in Egypt. Threatened with mounting popular discontent, however, the government has lately moved to guard its flank, showing its harshness toward secularist as well as fundamentalist voices. Feminists and democratic dissidents have been recent targets. Homosexuals are simply the latest, and perhaps the most politically convenient, scapegoats.
At least 55 men were arrested in the early hours of May 11, 2001, following a raid by police and State Security Intelligence personnel on the Queen Boat, a discotheque in Cairos Zamalek district. (Charges against 3 of the men were reportedly dropped at a hearing over six weeks later.)
It is clear that the arrests were based on suspicions that homosexuals congregated at the Queen Boat: the bar, unlike many discotheques in Cairo, did not have a policy of admitting only men and women in couples. Police reportedly targeted those men who were not accompanied by women. One foreign national present stated that "People were sitting at separate tables having beer, some dancing, when we suddenly found the place full of policemen, arresting and beating everybody." Arriving patrons were arrested, as well as those inside the discotheque during the raid; reportedly some persons on the Nile embankment outside were also detained.
The arrested men, all Egyptian nationals, were taken to al-Azbakiyya police station in Cairo. Following a hearing the next day, they were transferred to Tora Prison on the outskirts of Cairo. Afterward, their detention was repeatedly extended at successive hearings at two-week intervals. (One of the men was released for reasons of health on May 23, but charges against him apparently remain pending.)
Authorities at first held the arrestees virtually incommunicado. Visits from family members were severely restricted, and lawyers were not allowed access to the prisoners. When the men were finally allowed counsel at their May 23 hearing, several stated they had been tortured. Reports from lawyers indicate that the men were subjected to beatings and ill-treatment from their first incarceration in the police lockup, apparently in order to force them to confess to homosexual practices. An Egyptian source reports:
"When the lawyers met the prisoners, they learned that they were continually harassed in prison. Virtually all of them said that the prison authorities seemed to be encouraging other prisoners to harass them because they were faggots and at least one of the prisoners was punished with solitary confinement after he beat up his attackers.
"The lawyers also found out that in the first investigation, many told the prosecutors that they had been tortured and showed the prosecutor the marks. Although the prosecutor had recommended at the time that they be examined by the coroner, nothing happened and they were held incommunicado till the marks faded."
Visitors have reported that whippings and electroshocks may have been inflicted on the prisoners. The detainees were also subjected to forensic examinations in order to ascertain whether they had engaged in anal intercourse; the results of these examinations were adduced as evidence at hearings before the Supreme State Security Prosecutor on June 6 and 7. Both Human Rights Watch and IGLHRC have condemned such examinations as a form of cruel and inhuman treatment, "profoundly degrading and humiliating to those forced to undergo them" (HRW and IGLHRC, Public Scandals: Sexual Orientation and Criminal Law in Romania, p. 87).
Meanwhile, the tightly State-controlled media engaged in a campaign of vilification against the imprisoned men. They were called "Satanists" (an echo of a celebrated 1997 case, in which a group of teenagers, arrested in part because they listened to heavy-metal music, were accused of devil worship and subjected to prolonged detention and to sensationalized media coverage). Some newspapers published the names, workplaces, and even photographs of the accusedwith similarities of language suggesting they had derived this information from official sources.
Egyptian law (Law No. 96 Concerning the Regulation of Journalists, Article 23) bars publishing details of an ongoing investigation or trial that might influence its outcome. The 1998 Code of Ethics of the Egyptian Journalists Association also states that "reporters should refrain from publishing details of a criminal or civil investigation or trial with the aim of influencing the course of proceedings"and that "a reporter is not allowed to publish names or photos of defendants."
Despite such stipulations, the press campaign intensified. On May 13, the daily paper Al Maasa alleged the defendants belonged to an organized group, of religious heretics as well as foreign agents: "The accused persons admitted to the police officers that they believe in . . . perverse ideas which they brought from a perverse group in Europe whose members practice deviant practices such as homosexual marriage, and believe that perverse relationships between men are stronger than sexual relationships between men and women. Their ideas stress the negation of revealed religions, which they consider based on absurd and mythical beliefs." The group spread its ideas "among youth groups in universities, high schools, and clubs." The State Security Office had been tapping the telephones of members of "the perverse group" for some time, Al Maasa reported.
On the same day, the State-owned daily Al Ahram also identified the defendants as devil worshippers and cultists, who "tried to recruit new members to their cult and called on them to go to swim in the Dead Sea in Jordan to be blessed by its water." One of the group, Al Ahram stated, had confessed to being "immersed in Judaism." Al Maasa on May 14 quoted Mohammed El Shahat, Professor of Islamic Law at Tanta University, as urging that, with this "perversion" spreading, the highest possible punishment should be imposed for the sake of deterrence. (Egypt, nonetheless, does not apply Islamic shariah law.) On May 15, Al Maasa returned with the "Latest on Satanists Case." By this time a "leader" of the "group" had been identified: a man "who traveled to a number of European countries as well as Israel, and is also a prominent member of many international perverted organizations that are widespread in these countries, and adopted their perverted ideas in practicing deviance, and recruited a number of his friends to spread the organizations ideas in Egypt."
The accusation of prostitution also worked to discredit the victims. When Amnesty International later criticized the arrests, the tabloid Rose al Youssef headlined its June 21 response, "Excuse me, this is prostitution, not human rights!" It quoted one human rights activist as stating, "This is a crime against human nature and against religious values."
Although the alleged torture, the incommunicado detention, and the interference with legal representation raised fundamental issues of justice, few Egyptian human rights organizations were willing to be associated with the case. (The Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, which furnished legal support to some of the defendants, was a notable exception.) The spectre of homosexuality and the religious cast given the case discouraged intervention. Rose al Youssef quoted one human rights lawyer who justified inaction by recalling the consequences of NGO opposition to female genital mutilation: "We were subjected to severe attacks and accused of promoting promiscuity." He added, "I expect certain currents to make use of [this case] to press several accusations against Egyptian human rights organizationssuch accusations as allowing and promoting perversion." An official of the Egyptian Human Rights Organization (EOHR) even declared his intention to write a book demonstrating that homosexual rights are not human rights. Finally, on July 18, after more than two months detention, the men were arraigned at the Abdin courthouse in downtown Cairo. Amid chaotic crowds, the handcuffed men tried to cover their faces from reporters and photographers. Some spectators berated the prisoners as "perverts"; families, whom guards had attempted to clear from the courtroom, protested angrily outside, in a scene almost unprecedented in Egypt, railing against both press coverage and State repression. "Why have they done this to our youth?" one women cried about her brother, one of the accused. "Even if he comes out not guilty, they have tarnished his reputation forever."
The isolation of the men had prevented preparing a common defense. Four were defended by a lawyer from the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, others only by whatever legal representation their families had been able to find. Lawyers were only informed officially of the details of the accusations as the hearing began. According to Al Ahram, one lawyer stated, "The dossier of the case includes 1000 pages. We had little time to study it and prepare our defense."
All the men were charged under Article 9.c of Law No. 10/1961 on the Combat
of Prostitution. The law provides a sentence of three months to three years
imprisonment for "obscene behavior" as well as prostitution. Two of
the men were also charged under Article 98.f of the Penal Code, which
criminalizes "contempt for religion" and carries a sentence of six
months to five years. The court set a further hearing for August 15.
The right to freedom from torture and from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment is protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in its Article 5, and by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in its Article 7. It is also protected by the United Nations Convention against Torture (CAT).
Discrimination based on status is barred by the UDHR in its Articles 1 and 2, and by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in its Articles 2 and 26. These provisions do not expressly mention "sexual orientation": however, the United Nations Human Rights Committee held in the 1994 case Toonen v Australia that the ICCPRs anti-discrimination provisions should be understood to include sexual orientation as a protected status.
The right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is protected by both the UDHR and ICCPR in Article 18 of each.
The right to freedom of expression is protected by both the UDHR and ICCPR in Article 19 of each.
The rights to freedoms of assembly and association are protected by the UDHR in its Article 20, and by the ICCPR in its Articles 21 and 22.
The right to a fair trial is protected by numerous international instruments, notably the ICCPR in its Article 14, which prescribes inter alia that "All persons shall be equal before the courts and tribunals"; that all persons are entitled to the presumption of innocence; that all persons have the right to counsel of their own choosing, and to "be tried without undue delay"; and that "Everyone convicted of a crime shall have the right to his conviction and sentence being reviewed by a higher tribunal according to law."
The right to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention is also protected by numerous international instruments, including the UDHR and ICCPR in Article 9 of each. Article 9 of the ICCPR also affirms that persons in pre-trial detention are "entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release. It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody, but release may be subject to guarantees to appear for trial."
Egypt ratified the ICCPR in 1982 and acceded to the Convention Against Torture in 1986. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is considered part of customary international law, and binding on all member States of the United Nations.