An Egyptian court on Monday acquitted 26 men on charges of “debauchery” -- a term commonly used here as code for homosexual acts -- but only after they had endured public humiliation, weeks in jail and, in at least three cases, apparent sexual assault while in custody.
The acquittals were welcomed by the men’s supporters, but the case was held up as an example of an increasingly hostile climate toward gay people under Egypt’s authoritarian government. Although homosexuality is not technically illegal, dozens of people have been prosecuted in recent months for alleged acts such as public lewdness or habitual indecency that are generally invoked when gays are targeted.
Particularly disturbing to many was the fact that the men’s arrests were instigated by a reporter for a pro-government television channel, who informed authorities that gay orgies were taking place at a well-known Cairo bathhouse.
The reporter, Mona Iraqi, was on hand with a camera crew when the raid took place and provided gleeful commentary as the frightened detainees were dragged away half-naked, trying to hide their faces. She claimed that she was carrying out an investigation meant to stem the spread of AIDS.
While in custody, the men were subjected to intrusive and medically discredited “forensic” tests meant to determine whether they had engaged in anal intercourse. Advocacy groups have denounced the so-called tests as a violation of basic rights, and even those carrying out the examinations acknowledged in court that they were not a reliable indicator of whether or not a person had engaged in homosexual acts.
Moreover, the authorities acknowledged that at least three of the men showed signs of having been sexually assaulted while in jail, after being placed among the general prison population following their arrests.
In conservative Egyptian society, the stigma of highly publicized arrests led to lost jobs and ruptured family relationships for many of the defendants, their lawyers said. During their trial, some of the men wept in the caged defendants’ dock generally used in Egyptian criminal cases.
Following the men’s arrests, New York-based Human Rights Watch called the case “typical of an intensifying and troubling government clampdown on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Egypt.” Previous high-profile cases have included jail terms handed down last year against eight men for taking part in what authorities described as a same-sex engagement party on a Nile party boat.
Other often-ostracized groups have been targeted as well; on Saturday, an Egyptian court sentenced a 21-year-old man to three years in prison after he declared on Facebook that he was an atheist.