Egypt: Emergency Court Trials for Homosexuality Suspects

(07/04/01) -- Two international human rights groups today deplored the Egyptian government's decision to prosecute fifty-two men before an Emergency State Security Court on charges of "obscene behavior" and expressing "contempt for religion." An Egyptian prosecutor will review their continued detention this week.

In a joint statement, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) condemned the men's detention since May 11, when they were arrested apparently on suspicion that they had engaged in consensual homosexual behavior, and expressed grave concern that they may have been subjected to torture in detention.  
"Egyptian law does not outlaw homosexuality, but these men are being held on charges of violating public morals," said Scott Long, IGLHRC's Policy Director. "They are really being punished for exercising their basic rights to free expression and free association."  
The men were initially held incommunicado, unable to contact lawyers or relatives, and some were reportedly beaten and ill-treated. The procedures of the Emergency State Security Court for Misdemeanors, established under Egypt's state of emergency legislation, do not comport with international fair trial standards. If convicted, they face prison terms ranging from three months to nine years. There is no right of appeal to a higher tribunal.  
"This case exhibits some of the worst features of Egypt's justice system - prolonged and incommunicado detention and emergency proceedings on spurious charges," said Hanny Megally director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.  
Fifty-two Egyptian men arrested in the second week of May, apparently on suspicion that they engaged in consensual homosexual behavior, are to be tried before the Emergency State Security Court for Misdemeanours on charges of committing "obscene behaviour" (al-fujur - which can include adultery, fornication and sodomy), and with "contempt for religion". The decision to refer the case to trial was announced by Prosecutor General Maher Abdel Wahed at a press conference held on June 28. Charges against three others arrested in the same case were dropped. No date has been set for the trial.  
Egyptian law does not expressly criminalize homosexual acts. However, the obscenity charge is being brought under Article 9(c) of Law No. 10 of 1961 on the Combat of Prostitution. This law provides a custodial sentence of between three months and three years for "obscene behaviour" as well as prostitution. The "contempt for religion" charge is being brought under Article 98(f) of the Penal Code, and which is punishable with imprisonment of between six months and five years.  
The Emergency State Security Court for Misdemeanours (Mahkamat Junah Amn al-Dawla Taware') is an exceptional court established within the framework of state of emergency legislation. Defendants do not have the right of appeal before a higher tribunal: they may submit a complaint (tazallum) against the verdict to the Military Governor (al-Hakem al-'Askari) who, irrespective of whether such a complaint has been submitted, must either uphold or quash the verdict, or he may order a retrial before the same court. If the original verdict is upheld, the defendant may submit a petition (iltimas) to the Military Governor on humanitarian grounds. The decision of the Military Governor is final.  
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) are gravely concerned that these men are being brought to trial because of their sexual orientation, as well as for the exercise of their rights to free expression and association. Article 98(f) of the Penal Code, in particular, continues to be used to prosecute individuals - including writers and members of minority religious groups - for the expression of ideas deemed to "offend religion", prosecutions which clearly violate their right to freedom of expression.  
HRW and IGLHRC are also gravely concerned by reports that the men may have been subjected to torture during detention, and that they are to be tried before an exceptional court whose proceedings fail to meet internationally recognized standards for fair trial as set out in Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt is a state party.  
According to the Egyptian daily newspaper al-Ahram Supreme State Security Prosecution officials accused the defendants, on the basis of witness testimony and materials seized from the defendants' homes, of the following: having exploited Islam, including through the false interpretation of Quranic verses, in order to propagate extremist ideas; the performance of immoral acts; the use of perverted sexual practices in rituals; being contemptuous and derisory towards the revealed religions and fomenting sedition or strife.  
The accused were arrested in the early hours of May 11, 2001, following a raid by police and State Security Intelligence (SSI) personnel on a party held aboard the Queen Boat, moored on the Nile in Cairo's Zamalek district. Initial reports in the Egyptian media suggested that those arrested were part of a "Satanic cult" and that they were being held under charges of "exploiting religion to promote extreme ideas to create strife and belittle the revealed religions." It subsequently became clear that the arrests were carried out because the men were suspected of engaging in consensual sexual activity with persons of the same sex. The detainees were subjected to forensic examinations, apparently in order to determine whether they had engaged in anal intercourse. The results of these examinations were presented at hearings before the Supreme State Security Prosecution on June 6 and 7.  
Within the first twenty-four hours of arrest, while held at al-Azbakiyya police station, some of the men were reportedly beaten and ill-treated, apparently to force them to confess to homosexuals practices. During this time, they were held incommunicado without the possibility of contacting their relatives or lawyers. The following day, May 12, they were brought before the Supreme State Security Prosecution and interrogated. In the absence of defense counsel, none of the defendants stated that they had been tortured. Some of them subsequently made such statements at the next hearing held on May 23, after having had access to counsel. However, prosecution officials did not authorize medical examinations in order to verify their claims, apparently because no physical traces of torture were visible at that time.  
Following the May 12 hearing, at which the accused were ordered detained for a two-week period pending investigation, they were transferred to Tora Prison on the outskirts of Cairo, where they remain. Their detention periods were extended for additional two-week periods on May 23, June 7 and June 21, with the exception of one of the accused who was released on health grounds on May 23 although the case against him remained pending. Initially their relatives were hindered in visiting them and their right to defense counsel was restricted. Some of their visitors also reported being harassed and insulted by the prison authorities.  
In the days following the arrests, the detainees were subjected to a campaign of vilification in the Egyptian media. The names of the detainees, together with details of the profession and place of work of some of them, were published in several newspapers in articles that were noticeably similar in content and style. The level of detail and similarity of the wording suggested that this information was based on leaks from official sources. Egyptian legislation prohibits the publication of any details concerning an ongoing investigation or trial that would influence the course of such proceedings (Law No. 96 of 1996 Concerning the Regulation of Journalism, Article 23). Similarly, the 26 March 1998 Code of Ethics of the Egyptian Journalists' Association stipulates that its members refrain from publishing details of a criminal or civil investigation or trial with the aim of influencing the course of such proceedings.  
The right to freedom of expression and association and the right to freedom from discrimination on the basis of sex, which includes sexual orientation, are fundamental human rights recognized in international treaties, including the ICCPR. Being held solely on these grounds thus violates these detainees' basic human rights. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, HRW and IGLHRC believe the defendants' detention to be so motivated, and urge their immediate and unconditional release.  
Egypt is also a state party to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Both the Torture Convention and the ICCPR prohibit cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. In line with their obligations under these treaties, it is incumbent on the Egyptian authorities to consider seriously any allegations of torture and ill-treatment made by the defendants, and to undertake a thorough investigation in this regard. Such treatment includes the pain and humiliation of forced physical examinations of the anal and genital regions.