Last edited: February 14, 2005

Egypt Party Raid Puts Focus on Gays

Associated Press, July 16, 2001

By Mariam Fam

CAIRO, Egypt — Police swooped down on the floating restaurant before dawn, rounding up 55 men they said were homosexuals having a sex party.

The arrests and impending trial have been big news in Egypt, where homosexuality, while not explicitly a crime, is met with zero tolerance and seen as a shameful sin.

On Wednesday, 52 of the men face their first court hearing on charges of immoral behavior and contempt of religion. Three of those arrested, who were found to have only taken pictures on the boat, were released.

Prosecutors have not released details of the case against the men, but since their arrest May 11, Egyptian newspapers have published their names and pictures and accused them of homosexuality and scorning religion. Some stories were illustrated with photos of nude men cuddling in a bedroom that apparently had nothing to do with the boat arrests.

The boat, anchored in the Nile off Cairo’s upscale island of Zamalek, was known to be popular among homosexuals, which aroused concerns that those detained were targeted solely for being gay and not for any actions.

An American living in Cairo who was on the boat during the raid said his friends are homosexuals but were doing nothing offensive. Speaking on condition he not be identified, the man said that he was not arrested and that police seemed to take only those who appeared Egyptian.

Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group, said it feared "these men are detained purely on the grounds of their alleged sexual orientation."

In a joint protest statement, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and the New York-based Human Rights Watch said, "This case exhibits of some of the worst features of Egypt’s justice system."

Amnesty International said "contempt of religion," a crime punishable by up to five years in prison, has been used by Egyptian officials in the past "as the legal pretext for the imprisonment of prisoners of conscience."

Gays in Egypt keep a very low profile because of the widespread conservative social outlook.

To many Egyptians, calling for gay rights is out of the question because they believe religion — be it Islam or Christianity — forbids homosexuality.

"Any behavior that is rejected by both society and religion has to be punished. Otherwise we’d be living in a jungle," said Egyptian sociologist Azza Korayem, an adviser at the National Center for Sociological and Criminal Studies.

In June, Egypt led a group of Muslim nations of the United Nations that tried to strip U.N. credentials from a rights group because its name specifically refers to homosexuality. A majority vote let the San Francisco-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission keep its credentials.

Jawad Fatayer, who teaches sociology at the American University in Cairo, said the way Egyptian society and its media reacted to the case sends one clear message: "Absolute rejection."

He said a society has the right to defend its values and traditions and define what it will and won’t accept. Still, he added, Egypt should go beyond rejection and try to understand what pushes people toward homosexuality.

"You can put people in jail, but you can’t end the phenomenon. It’s going to show up again. Saying no is not enough," Fatayer said.

Gasser Abdel-Razek, director of the independent Hisham Mubarak Law Center, an Egyptian human rights group that is helping the boat case defendants, has a different take.

He doesn’t think the government is really interested in cracking down on homosexuality but rather wants to distract people from other issues in Egypt, where poverty is widespread.

"These people are targeted and they have not committed any crime," he said.

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