Last edited: December 08, 2004

Activists: Egypt Tortures Suspected Gays

United Press International, November 16, 2001

CAIRO—Only one day after a court sentenced 23 allegedly gay men to between one and five years of hard labor, an Egyptian newspaper reported on Thursday a new case against four presumed homosexuals who are also likely to face criminal charges.

International gay rights activists, already outraged by the court case, are now warning that gays in Egypt may be under threat of systematic persecution. Local rights groups, however, have been mostly reluctant to intervene, feeling that any support of homosexuality could mean the end of a fledging civil society movement in socially conservative Egypt.

The Egyptian state daily Al Akbar wrote on Nov. 15 that police in the Cairo neighborhood of Giza had arrested four men who had turned their apartment into a "den of perversion." The men are being held in detention on suspicion of "habitual practice of debauchery," the same charge leveled at 52 men arrested at a Cairo nightspot earlier this year.

Although they have not been formally charged yet, public prosecution services are holding them in prison under administrative detention.

In May, a police crackdown on the Queen Boat, a Nileside floating bar and disco and reputed gay hangout, led to the arrest of 55 men. Of those, 52 were charged with "habitual practice of debauchery," and two of them—considered to be the ringleaders in a gay sex party—have also been charged with contempt of religion.

Although homosexuality is not specifically referred to in the Egyptian legal code, prosecutors have been able to charge the men under a vague law relating to prostitution and obscene behavior.

"This new case is eerily similar to the Cairo 52 case," stated Scott Long, Program Director with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, an organization that monitors discrimination against homosexuals. "Presumed homosexuals arrested at random under the same law on prostitution, beaten in prison, and vilified by the media, while police fabricate facts that do not add up."

Long, who came to Egypt to monitor the case, spoke with one of the arrested men in a Cairo police station. Speaking in tears, the man said that he was forced to strip naked and beaten, splashed with cold water and left hanging by the bars of his prison cell, Long said.

An Egyptian gay rights activist who did not want his name mentioned also told United Press International that, contrary to police claims, the four men were not arrested together. He also said that two of the men were picked up from the streets seemingly at random. These charges of torture and wrongful arrest are similar to those reportedly experienced by some defendants in the Cairo 52 case.

The Cairo 52 is not an isolated case," Long said. "It is becoming clearer that persecution of homosexuals is a major human rights issue in Egypt. The international community should be clear with Egypt as well in demanding the Egyptian government to stop these abuses now."

Earlier in the week, the final verdict for the four-month-long trial was handed down in a state security court in the Cairo neighborhood of Bab Al Khalq. Crammed in a small courtroom cage, 52 presumed homosexual men were handed down a mixed verdict.

Although 29 of the defendants were acquitted of all charges, 23 were given one to five-year sentences. The final session of the trial, known as the "Cairo 52 case" or "Queen Boat case," took place in chaos has many of the lawyers involved in the case were barred from entering the courtroom.

Only a small contingent of lawyers, activists, journalists and diplomats were allowed—seemingly randomly—to enter the courtroom. The judge’s speedy reading of the verdict in the noisy courtroom also led to much confusion, as most observers could not make out what the judge was saying.

It took over two hours for the verdict to become clear—leaving many friends and relatives of the defendants frustrated. One man, whose friend was among the defendants, lurched out at cameramen in a fit of anger, shouting, "There is no justice!" as he mistakenly believed his friend has been convicted. He later discovered he had been acquitted.

Family members were the most dismayed, with women weeping out loud and invoking God or distributing sweets to passers-by depending on the verdict. The four-month long trial has taken a particularly heavy toll on families, as Egypt’s tabloid press published the names of the defendants and in some cases doctored pictures showing them in Israeli uniforms.

Social stigma over homosexuality may mean that, even if acquitted, many defendants will not be able to return to their normal lives. Since the trial took place in a State Security Court, the defendants have no right to appeal. Under Egypt’s 1981 Emergency Law, State Security Court rulings must be ratified by the military governor, who is the president of the Republic. Although rights activists are appealing to Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, they think he is unlikely to pardon the Queen Boat case defendants, whom have drawn little public sympathy.

One Egyptian gay rights activist present at the hearing, who did not want his name to be published, suggested that Mubarak may have been behind the verdict, as State Security Courts are not considered to be independent from the executive.

Nevertheless, activists are trying to put pressure on Egypt’s leader to pardon the men. Long said he hoped Mubarak would reverse the ruling.

"The decision now lies with President Mubarak," Long stressed. But he also accused Egypt’s government of using the defendants as scapegoats at a time when Egypt is in economic and political difficulty. "The government is creating a distraction. It is taking the position of the fundamentalist right, which is usually the victims of these courts."

State Security Courts have been mostly used against Islamic fundamentalist over the past 20 years, ranging from the peaceful and popular Muslim Brotherhood movement to terrorist organizations such as Gamaa Al Islamiya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which conducted a wave of terrorist attacks in the 1990s and are thought to have links with Osama Bin Laden.

Egyptian human rights activists are now worried that the use of State Security Courts is spreading to include other forms of opposition. Over the past year, the courts have been used against civil society voices such as American University in Cairo sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an American-Egyptian academic, who worked on election monitoring programs. Ibrahim was sentenced to seven years of jail last summer despite international pressure to free him.

However, local rights groups have been reluctant to defend the Queen Boat case defendants, with only one organization, the Hisham Mubarak Center, providing legal aid for eight of the defendants. Other organizations have steered clear of the case.

"In my mind I have no doubt that this is a rights case," explained Hisham Kassem, president of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights. "But sometimes you have to make tough decisions. We are already seen as fifth columnists who get money from abroad, if we defend (the Queen Boat defendants) we will be seen as introducing homosexuality to Egypt. It would kill the concept of human rights in Egypt."

Foreign activists such as Long have little sympathy for this argument.

"These men have been subjected to arbitrary arrests, torture and trial without the possibility of appeal," he said. "These are not sexuality issues, they are human rights issues. They (local rights organizations) should not let the government play divide and conquer."

Although there is the possibility of defendants taking their case to the U.N. Commission of Human Rights, observers think that the current international situation may not favor the prospects of the Queen Boat case defendants. With the United States striving to keep the coalition against terrorism together despite Arab fears that the war on terrorism is turning into a war against Islam, human rights issues such as the Queen Boat case or the jailing of Saad Eddin Ibrahim are likely to play second fiddle to more pressing concerns.

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