In Egypt, it isn't a crime to be homosexual – at least in theory. But a high-profile court case, resulting in three-year prison terms handed down to Saturday to eight defendants for "inciting debauchery," pointed up the increasingly hostile climate toward gays in a country where repression of all stripes is on the rise.
The evidence upon which the eight were convicted appeared to rest strongly on a video – viewed widely on Egyptian social media in recent months – showing them attending an alleged same-sex engagement party on a boat on the Nile. The men denied any wrongdoing and said the event in question – described by the prosecution as a "same-sex lovers' party" -- had been misconstrued.
The prosecution's case featured an examination carried out by state medical personnel, purportedly to determine whether the men were in fact homosexual.
Homosexuality has long been a taboo topic in Egypt. Even in relatively cosmopolitan big cities, conservative Muslim mores exercise tremendous influence. Gay men have frequently been jailed under various statutes governing indecency, immorality, or offense to Islam.
The defendants, held in a courtroom cage as is customary in trials here, reacted to the verdict with dismay, clutching their heads with their hands. So did relatives outside the court, who wailed when news of the verdict was delivered.
Egypt's harsh treatment of those suspected of homosexual acts has been extensively documented by human rights groups over a period of many years. Some of those accused have undergone torture, according to groups including Human Rights Watch.
In one notorious case more than a dozen years ago, 57 men were rounded up in a raid on a floating Nile discotheque and tried by a state security court. Nearly two dozen were sentenced to prison terms, some as long as five years. In a case last month, six men were given two-year terms of hard labor on debauchery convictions.
In Saturday's case, the men received three years of probation in addition to their prison sentences. The verdicts can be appealed.
The men's lawyer, Mohamed Bakier, argued that the charge of "inciting debauchery" was invalid, because none of the defendants had posted the footage online.