Defendants enter a cell a few minutes before they hear the verdict at a court in Cairo on January 12, 2015.

(Berlin) – The acquittal in Egypt on January 12, 2015, of 26 men accused of “practicing debauchery,” is a rare success in protecting the rights to privacy and nondiscrimination. The men were arrested at a bathhouse in Cairo on December 7, 2014. 

Government prosecutors have appealed the decision, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a nongovernmental group, reported, but authorities released all 26 men. This is the first time since 2011 that a trial court is known to have handed down a total acquittal in a “debauchery” case.

“This case is a rare victory for human rights and judicial independence in Egypt, but prosecutors never should have brought these charges in the first place,” said Boris Dittrich, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocacy director. “The prosecutor should promptly withdraw its appeal.”

On the day of the arrests, a pro-government television news show released images of the men, semi-naked, being bundled into police vans. The show’s host, Mona Iraqi, claimed to have tipped off the police and included footage showing the men’s faces in a December 8, 2014 broadcast. The deliberate, public humiliation of these men was a violation of their right to privacy, Human Rights Watch said.

Egypt does not explicitly criminalize same-sex sexual relations between consenting adults, but authorities have routinely arrested people suspected of engaging in consensual homosexual conduct on charges of “debauchery.” The largest such case in recent Egyptian history, known as the Queen Boat Trials, was in 2001, with the arrests of more than 50 men allegedly involved in a party at a discotheque on a cruise vessel moored in the Nile.

Authorities subjected the men arrested in December 2014 to forensic anal examinations – a procedure that the Egyptian authorities have used repeatedly in cases of alleged homosexual conduct and that violates international standards against torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. A spokesman for the Justice Ministry’s Forensic Medical Authority announced on December 15 that, based on results of the forensic anal exams, the men had not engaged in anal sex.

In 1994, the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled in the case of Toonen v. Australia that laws criminalizing consensual homosexual conduct between adults violate the rights to nondiscrimination and privacy. The committee monitors state compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is party. Furthermore, Egypt’s use of forensic anal examinations violates international standards against torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. The UN Committee Against Torture, in its 2002 review of Egypt, investigated the issue of forensic anal examinations and called on the government “to prevent all degrading treatment on the occasion of body searches.”

In December 2014, the EIPR said it estimated that the authorities had arrested roughly 150 people on “debauchery” charges since July 2013, when the military removed former President Mohamed Morsy. The group said it did not know how many had been convicted. On December 27, an appeals court upheld debauchery convictions for eight men accused of participating in a same-sex wedding ceremony, though it reduced their three-year sentences to one year.

“Egyptian authorities should immediately stop detaining men suspected of homosexual conduct under vague charges of ‘debauchery,’” Dittrich said. “The criminal justice authorities should follow the court’s lead and release the dozens more who remain imprisoned under this repressive law.”