A Cairo appeals court’s decision to uphold the sentences imposed on five men jailed in a crackdown on people living with HIV/AIDS underscores the Egyptian government’s dangerous indifference to public health and justice, Human Rights Watch said today. The May 28 ruling upheld the maximum three-year prison terms for each of the five, following a months-long campaign targeting men with HIV/AIDS. A total of nine men have been sentenced to prison so far.
“To send these men to prison because of their HIV status is inhuman and unjust,” said Joe Amon, director of the HIV/AIDS program at Human Rights Watch. “Police, prosecutors, and doctors have already abused them and violated their most basic rights, and now fear has trumped justice in a court of law.”
On May 7, a court of first instance in Cairo had convicted the five men on charges of “habitual practice of debauchery,” a phrase that in Egyptian law encompasses consensual sexual acts between men.
Before their first trial, a prosecutor told the men’s lawyer that they should not be allowed to “roam the streets freely” because the government considered them “a danger to public health.”
Since October 2007, Cairo police have arrested a dozen men on suspicion of being HIV-positive. The crackdown began when one man, stopped on the street during an altercation, told officers he was HIV-positive. Police arrested him and the man with him, beat and abused them, and interrogated them to name sexual contacts. Police then began picking up others based on information from those interrogations.
On January 14, 2008, a Cairo court sentenced four of those men to one-year prison terms on “debauchery” charges. An appeals court upheld those sentences on February 2. The present five defendants were referred for trial separately in March. Authorities released three other men, who tested negative for HIV, without charge, after months in detention.
While the 12 were in detention, doctors from the Ministry of Health forcibly subjected all of them to HIV tests without their consent. Doctors from Egypt’s Forensic Medical Authority performed abusive anal examinations on the men to “prove” they had had sex with other men. Human Rights Watch has documented that such examinations conducted in detention constitute torture. Police and guards beat several of the men in detention. A prosecutor told one of the men that he had tested positive for HIV by saying, “People like you should be burnt alive. You do not deserve to live.”
The prisoners who tested HIV-positive were chained to their beds in hospitals for months. After a local and international outcry, the Ministry of Health ordered the men unchained on February 25.
“Putting these men in prison serves neither justice nor public health,” Amon said. “The Egyptian government and the country’s medical profession must act to end this campaign of intolerance.”