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Egypt: from bathhouse to prison

No one is immune to the Egyptian authorities’ ruthless crackdown. Most recently ‘debauchery’ charges have been brought against those deemed to fall short of their moral standards.

Dozens of men were dragged out of a bathhouse by security forces with their hands shackled behind their backs. Local residents watched as the men, wearing nothing but bath towels, were paraded through the street. Some joined in, striking and insulting the group as they were taken away.

The raid on the Cairo bathhouse in the neighbourhood of Ramsis on the night of 7 December saw at least 33 people arrested. The arrests—not the first and unlikely to be the last—are part of a sweeping crackdown by the authorities, driven by discriminatory stereotypes about sexual orientation or gender identity, in violation of fundamental freedoms.

The head of Cairo’s security directorate later said the men had been “practising debauchery”, a crime in Egypt. Their ordeal had only just begun.

On 9 December, prosecutors ordered forensic agencies to subject the men to forced anal examinations, apparently to determine whether they had taken part in sexual relations with other men. These forced ‘tests’ amount to torture. The simple fact that many of the men were undressed—something one would expect in a public bath—was deemed grounds for their arrest.

On 11 December, a court extended the detention of 26 of the men for 15 days. They face the frightening prospect of further humiliating investigations by the Public Prosecution, criminal charges for ‘debauchery’ and, eventually, trial. And there is little hope that the criminal-justice system will show mercy.

Documented

Egyptian law doesn’t explicitly criminalise homosexuality; nor does it prohibit being undressed in a public bathhouse. But law-enforcement and judicial authorities have long used provisions on ‘debauchery’ under Law 10 of 1961, On the Combat of Prostitution, to criminalise consensual sexual relations between men in private, as well as male prostitution. For years, Amnesty International has documented cases where individuals have been detained, charged and tried under this law.

The crackdown itself is not new. Amnesty documented cases under the former president Hosni Mubarak and has done so under the different administrations in the years since his ousting from power in February 2011.

The simple fact that many of the men were undressed—something one would expect in a public bath—was deemed grounds for their arrest.

What is new is the scale. Human-rights activists say they have recorded the arrest in the last 17 months of dozens of men, as well as transgender women and other individuals. All believe that the true number of those arrested is likely to be much higher than those they have been able to document.

The latest crackdown first hit international headlines on 1 November, when a court jailed eight men for three years after convicting them of taking part in what the Public Prosecution alleged was a “gay wedding” on a Nile riverboat. The court found the men guilty of ‘debauchery’, as well as making and publishing a ‘shameless’ video.

Arrests on this scale have not been witnessed in over a decade—not since the so-called ‘Queen Boat case’ in May 2001, when security forces arrested 60 men in Cairo, most on a floating night club. Of those arrested, 21 were eventually convicted and imprisoned for “habitual debauchery”, with one man sentenced for “contempt of religion” and another on both charges.

Degrading

Most of the recent arrests have taken place out of the public eye. But in some cases security forces have also paraded the individuals in front of the Egyptian media, who have published names and photographs. The arrests last weekend apparently unfolded in front of an Egyptian reporter and cameraman. The move seems to have been aimed at degrading and humiliating the individuals and instilling fear in anyone who privately takes part in consensual same-sex relations—or who may simply appear to take part.

As in the ‘Queen Boat’ case, these latest arrests come as part of a wider crackdown in Egypt on political dissent and on people who do not conform to traditional gender roles and stereotypes. The crackdown is at odds with Egypt’s obligations under international law to combat discrimination and uphold the rights to privacy and freedom of expression.

Today in Egypt, anyone who challenges the official political or moral narrative is at risk. The authorities’ actions make it clear that their “roadmap to stability and democracy” does not include people who hold different ideas or have a different identity from that deemed acceptable.

The crackdown is based on sweeping assumptions by security forces about sexual orientation and gender identity, violating the right to freedom from discrimination and the right to privacy. Such assumptions are responsible for dozens of arrests, torture and unfair trials. They are ruining lives.

It’s time for the Egyptian authorities to stop using the law to criminalise same-sex conduct. Persons charged under ‘debauchery’ legislation should be released from custody and charges dropped. Until that time, the human cost of this crackdown will only grow.

About the author

Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui is deputy director of Amnesty International's Middle East and north Africa programme.


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