Last edited: January 01, 2005

Another International Black Eye

The Cairo Times Online, 23—29 August 2001
Volume 5, Issue 24

As lawyers meddle out the details, international protests about the Queen Boat case grow in strength

Dalia Dabbous reports

Over 400 security forces surrounded the State Security Court where the Queen Boat defendants were tried

For almost five hours, defense statements and requests were heard from over 45 lawyers speaking on behalf of the 52 defendants that were allegedly arrested on the Queen boat, a popular gay hangout, in a case that has shocked a conservative nation, created a field day for journalists, and sparked worldwide criticism and protest.

Family members were refused entry into the courtroom at the second session of the trial, which resumed on 15 August, and dozens of security personnel were present to contain any scuffles that broke out, as happened in the previous session on 15 July, when family members fought with reporters.

Unlike the first session, when defense lawyers did not have a chance to make any requests or statements, this time they asked for the trial to be moved from a State Security Court (Emergency)–which deals with issues such as contempt of Islam–to a misdemeanor court since 50 of the defendants are charged only with practicing debauchery.

If the case is moved to such a court, defendants may face up to three years in prison, whereas the State Security Court could issue sentences as long as five years. Misdemeanor Court also offers the option of appeal, whereas emergency SSC rulings can only be appealed personally to the Military Governor. Defense lawyers also asked that the defendants be released, a request that was denied.

Prosecutor Ashraf Hilal opened by telling the court that the state possessed 893 photos of the defendants in the act of practicing debauchery. However, Taher Abu Nasr, a lawyer from the Hisham Mubarak Law Center who is representing four of the defendants, said that the pictures only involve the main defendant, Sherif Farahat, who is charged with among other things, defaming Islam, falsely interpreting verses of the Holy Quran, along with practicing gay sex. Farid Al Dib, Farahat’s lawyer, asked that the defense be allowed to see the photos. The next hearing was scheduled for Aug. 29.

Although she was unable to see her brother, Hatem Ibrahim, at the court, Amal Ibrahim Muhammad travels from Alexandria every 15 days, when relatives are permitted to visit the defendants, to see him in prison and said he is doing okay.

"He does not suffer from any mistreatment. I am allowed to give him money, food, and other personal items," she said. Muhammad also said that she is trying to provide his lawyer with documents that prove her brother is an Alexandrian and was only in Cairo for a visit during the time of the arrest. She maintains that her brother wasn’t even on the boat and was rounded up while walking nearby with friends on the Corniche.

The case has angered gay and lesbian groups worldwide and prompted protests around the globe. In Stockholm, a demonstration in front of the Egyptian embassy drew an estimated 30 to 40 participants. The protest was organized by The Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights (RFSL), and supported by the Swedish section of Amnesty International. In Geneva, 50 people demonstrated outside UN offices on the day of the hearing, holding up letters in French that spelled out: "Human Rights in Egypt–Free the 52 Gays" while another 50 people attended a San Francisco demonstration in front of the Egyptian consulate organized by the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of Al Fatiha, an international organization dedicated to Muslims who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered. In New York, members of the city council as well as local congressional representatives voiced their support for demonstrations held outside the Egyptian consulate.

Members of the US Congress went further in their disapproval of the case by sending a letter to President Mubarak describing the circumstances of the trial as "indefensible," and pointing out that the assistance that Egypt receives from the US comes from "a great number of taxpayers who are gay and lesbian, and it (the support) is approved by members of Congress, many of whom are fully supportive of the right of gay and lesbian people to be free from discrimination and violence." The letter, which is signed by 35 house members, goes on to say that they are "concerned over the negative impact this incident will have if it is uncorrected."

While international groups and organizations have been very vocal about their concern, local human rights groups have been more reserved, many of them coming under attack for their lack of participation in the case. Negad Al Borei, former head of the Group for Democratic Development, sees it as a matter of priorities. "There are a limited number of human rights organizations and so many critical issues we need to address like women’s rights, prison torture, and discrimination," he says.

Hisham Kassem, President of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (and publisher of the Cairo Times) says that despite the current trial, there’s no systematic persecution of Egyptian homosexuals. But even if there were, Kassem said EOHR’s position wouldn’t differ. "We can’t risk the whole organization because of this single case," he said.

The fear among rights organizations isn’t of a government clampdown, Kassem said, but of losing all credibility with the majority of Egyptian society. Already vilified by the state press as tools of sinister foreign interests, human rights groups would completely lose the thin shred of public support they still retain if they were perceived as encouraging and defending homosexuality. "We won’t be pressured by outside groups to change our policy," he said.

Borei sees it in another light, pointing out that it is not a matter of concern over being shut down, since human rights groups have for years been involved in thorny issues such as persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood. Nor is it even a case of homophobia. "I see this case on two levels of involvement from local human rights groups. One level concerns any torture of these prisoners and their right to a fair trial. The second level concerns protection of their rights as homosexuals."

On the first level, Borei explaned, human rights groups such as the Hisham Mubarak Law Center have provided lawyers for several of the defendants. Other human rights groups, he said, have no problem getting involved if family members or the defendants approach them and complain of prison torture. "If they don’t approach us, we can’t help them," he said.

On the second level, Al Borei stressed that with Egypt’s limited human rights organizations, homosexual rights just do not make it to the top of their agenda. He added that maybe with the expansion of the human rights movement, this state of affairs could change.

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