Twenty-One of Cairo 52 Re-Sentenced
21 gay men face jail in 2001 sex bust
City News, March 21–27, 2003
By Mick Meenan
EGYPTIAN GAY MEN AWAITING TRIAL FOR "HABITUAL
Their fingers are crooked tightly through the openings in
the metal grating that encloses them. Their faces are masked. Their eyes are
visible through makeshift slits in the cloth covering their heads.
It is there, in their eyes, perhaps, that the shame of
these men is most indelibly marked.
The penal law under which they have been incarcerated,
tried, and sentenced excludes mention of the very term that has engendered
such degradation for these men: homosexual. Indeed, not all of the men
arrested have even self-identified as being homosexual.
An Egyptian criminal court on March 15 re-sentenced 21
men to three years imprisonment for committing “habitual debauchery.” The
term is not a euphemism for gay sex. There is no specific reference to the
term homosexual in the Egyptian penal law, nor are there exact prohibitions on
specific same–sex sexual practices.
Needless to say, however, there is considerable
repression wrought upon homosexuals by Egyptian police forces.
The men in question are the 60 Cairo residents rounded up
in police sweeps in the early hours of May 11, 2001. The sweeps were part of
an ongoing campaign to crack down on gay men, particularly at venues where
they congregated. Most of the 60 men arrested were apprehended aboard the
Queen Boat, a night club moored on the banks of the Nile and known to be
frequented by gay men. Ten undercover officers from both State Security and
the Cairo vice squad boarded the disco and sealed off the exits. Other men
were rousted from their homes or from other locations around town.
Of the original 60 men, 52 men were detained until
November 14, 2001. According to Amnesty International, during their
detainment, the men reported being beaten by means of falaka, or being clubbed
with batons on the bare soles of their feet, held incommunicado from contacts
with counsel or family, and subjected to lengthy and torturous medical
examinations conducted by detention officials to determine whether they had
engaged in anal sex.
The defendants were tried in the Emergency State Security
Court established more than two decades ago after the assassination of
President Anwar Sadat. On November 14, 2001, 29 of the men were acquitted.
Twenty-one men were convicted of “habitual debauchery” and sentenced to up
to two years in prison and hard labor. One man was convicted of “contempt of
religion” and sentenced to three years in prison and hard labor. Another man
was convicted of both charges and sentenced to five years in prison and hard
In May 2002, due in part to an outpouring of
international support from human rights groups for the convicted men,
President Hosni Mubarak’s State Security Office for the Ratification of
Verdicts overturned the ruling on the original 50 verdicts involving habitual
debauchery. This decision shifts the new trials’ venue to Egypt’s regular
criminal courts, but vacated the twenty-nine original acquittals as well. The
two convictions for contempt of religion were upheld.
Afrol.com, a website that specializes in African politics
and culture, describes Egyptian gay men “terrified by a witch hunt” in the
weeks after law enforcement officials descended on the Queen Boat. Two days
after the arrests, the state-owned daily Al Ahram 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.”
Another Egyptian daily, Al Maasa, alleged in its May 13
issue that 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, Al Maasa reported.
Habitual debauchery is defined under Law 10 of the
Egyptian Penal Code as a physical act carried out by two men on more than one
occasion in the absence of a legal bond and without any remuneration
The charge of contempt for religion is even more loosely
defined, contends Amnesty International, having been used over the last three
years to imprison 26 people, some of them published writers on religion,
convicted for “exploiting religion for extremist ideas,” although none of
the defendants has ever been accused of advocating violence.
Scholars contend that persecution of homosexuals is based
in Egyptian criminal law’s “obeisance to the principles of Islamic
shari’a,” the legal code derived from strict adherence to the Koran.
Nathan Brown of George Washington University and Adel Omar Sharif of the
Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt, appearing in a Georgetown University
panel in 2001, argued “that a paradox has resulted from the establishment of
western-style constitutions, established as the fundamental law of the land,
being infused with references to the shari’a as an explicitly stated higher
form of prior law.”
In those nations where the shari’a has the force of
law, such as Iran, Kuwait, Pakistan Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, the death penalty
is prescribed for men who engage in sex with men.
While Egyptian law is secular and not constructed by
religious scholars, the effect of the shari’a on Egyptian social mores
perhaps explains the particularly virulent nature of the oppression gay men
have recently undergone.
Apparently the witch hunt against gay men continues. U.S.
Representative Barney Frank (D-MA), who is gay, recently wrote to Mubarak
threatening to call for a cessation of American aid to Egypt in the wake of
recent arrests of other gay men entrapped via the Internet by Egyptian
security official posing as gay men. Frank noted that in a recent omnibus
spending bill, Egypt netted $200 million in American foreign aid, some of
which is slated to upgrade Egypt’s Internet infrastructure.
“I should tell you that if gay men continue to be
entrapped and imprisoned through the use of the Internet, and in other ways,
this may undermine Congressional support for this and other kinds of
international aid,” Frank wrote.
In the last year for which statistics are available,
1998, the United States provided over $2.1 billion in foreign aid, including
humanitarian and military assistance, to Egypt. After Israel, the nation is
the second-highest recipient of American foreign aid.
Even before the retrial of the 21 men convicted this
week, Amnesty International issued a press release in which it called upon the
Egyptian authorities to release “immediately and unconditionally anyone
imprisoned solely for their actual or perceived sexual orientation.”
Following the trial, according to the Associated Press,
three Egyptian human right groups—the Egyptian Initiative for Personal
Rights, el Nadim Center for the Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of
Violence, and the Hisham Mubarak Center—issued a statement expressing
“their shock and anger at issuing tough sentences against the 21
Al-Fatiha Foundation, an American advocacy group for LGBT
Muslims, in a March 15 release, called on the United States to include sexual
and gender minority rights in its foreign policy agenda.
“As our government fights ‘the war on
terrorism,’” noted Faisal Alam, the organization’s president, “a
domestic war against suspected gay men is looming within Egypt, a country that
is considered to be a close U.S. ally.”
The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission
and Human Rights Watch have called upon the U.S. government to pressure
Mubarak to void the convictions and call off the hunt for gay men.
Al-Fatiha, in conjunction with other groups, has called
for a national day of protest in Egypt on May 11.
The 21 defendants convicted were not in court to hear the
verdicts, but their attorneys were present. They are all currently free on
bail pending appeal of their sentences. They face up to three years in prison
and hard labor.
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