A series of arrests in Cairo sparked by one man’s admission to police that he was HIV-positive endangers public health as well as human rights, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch called on Egyptian authorities to overturn the convictions of four men for the “habitual practice of debauchery,” and to free four others who are held pending trial. The government should end arbitrary arrests based on HIV status and take steps to end prejudice and misinformation about HIV/AIDS.
“These shocking arrests and trials embody both ignorance and injustice,” said Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt threatens not just its international reputation but its own population if it responds to the HIV/AIDS epidemic with prison terms instead of prevention and care.”
The arrests began in October 2007, when police stopped two men having an altercation on a street in central Cairo. When one of them told the officers that he was HIV-positive, police immediately took them both to the Morality Police office and opened an investigation against them for homosexual conduct. The two men told human rights defenders that they were slapped and beaten for refusing to sign statements the police wrote for them. They spent four days in the Morality Police office handcuffed to an iron desk, sleeping on the floor. Police later subjected the two men to forensic anal examinations designed to “prove” that they had engaged in homosexual conduct.
Human Rights Watch has documented that such examinations to detect “evidence” of homosexuality are not only medically spurious but constitute torture.
Police then arrested two more men because their photographs or telephone numbers were found on the first two detainees. Authorities subjected all to HIV tests without their consent. All four are still in detention, pending prosecutors’ decision on whether to bring charges of homosexual conduct. The first two arrestees, who reportedly tested HIV-positive, are being held in a Cairo hospital, handcuffed to their beds and only unchained for an hour each day.
Meanwhile, police apparently placed the apartment where one of the men had lived under surveillance. On November 20, two days after a new tenant had assumed the lease, police raided the apartment and detained four other men.
According to the arrest report, the men were fully dressed and were not engaging in any illegal acts at the time of the arrests. However, all were charged with homosexual conduct, apparently solely on the basis that they were found in a dwelling formerly occupied by one of the earlier detainees.
People who have spoken to the four men since their arrest told Human Rights Watch that a non-commissioned officer in the police station beat one detainee on the head several times. Police allegedly forced the four men to stand in a painful position for three hours with their arms lifted in the air. They were provided no food, drink, or blankets during their first four days of detention. Authorities also tested these men for HIV without their consent. One of the men reportedly said that the prosecutor, when informing him that he had tested positive for HIV, told him: “People like you should be burnt alive. You do not deserve to live.”
A Cairo court convicted these four men on January 13, 2008 under Article 9(c) of Law 10/1961, which criminalizes the “habitual practice of debauchery [fujur] – a term used to penalize consensual homosexual conduct in Egyptian law. According to defense attorneys, the prosecution based their case only on coerced and repudiated statements taken from the men, and neither called witnesses nor produced other evidence to counter the men’s pleas of not guilty. On February 2, 2008, a Cairo appeals court upheld their one-year prison sentence. One of them is held in a Cairo hospital, chained to his bed 23 hours a day.
“These cases show Egyptian police acting on the dangerous belief that HIV is not a condition to be treated but a crime to be punished,” said Long. “HIV tests forcibly taken without consent, ill-treatment in detention, trials driven by prejudice, and convictions without evidence all violate international law.”
In private letters sent to the Egyptian Public Prosecutor, Counselor Abdel Meguid Mahmoud Abdel Meguid, on November 29, 2007 and on January 8, 2008, Human Rights Watch expressed its grave concern about the arrests and their consequences for Egypt’s efforts against HIV/AIDS.
Human Rights Watch urged authorities to drop the charges, end the practice of chaining detainees in hospital, and ensure that the men receive the highest available standard of medical care for any serious health conditions. It also urged Egypt to undertake training for all criminal-justice officials on medical facts and international human rights standards in relation to HIV, and to halt immediately all testing of detainees without their consent.
Criminalizing consensual, adult homosexual conduct violates human rights protections to individual privacy and personal autonomy under international law. The apparent use of Article 9(c) in these cases to detain people on the basis of their declared HIV status, and to test them without their consent for HIV infection, also violates those international protections, and the right to bodily autonomy.
International human rights law clearly affirms that prisoners and detainees retain the absolute right to protection against torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment – and enjoy the right to the highest attainable standard of health, as guaranteed in Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Egypt has been party since 1982.