Government officials across the Middle East and North Africa region are targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people based on their online activity on social media, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Security forces have entrapped LGBT people on social media and dating applications, subjected them to online extortion, online harassment, and outing, and relied on illegitimately obtained digital photos, chats, and similar information in prosecutions, in violation of the right to privacy and other human rights.
The 153-page report, “‘All This Terror Because of a Photo’: Digital Targeting and Its Offline Consequences for LGBT People in the Middle East and North Africa,” examines the use of digital targeting by security forces and its far-reaching offline consequences – including arbitrary detention and torture – in five countries: Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia. The findings show how security forces employ digital targeting to gather and create evidence to support prosecutions.
I’m a transgender woman and was sentenced to three years in prison in Egypt.
I was sentenced to six months in prison, of which I was detained for 19 days [in Tunisia].
I was arrested in Saudi Arabia and sentenced to 10 months in prison and a 2600USD fine, along with a decision to deport me back to Yemen where my life was in danger.
Tina, Rania Amdouni, Mohamad al-Bokari
I'm a victim of digital targeting in the Middle East and North Africa region.
State actors across the Middle East and North Africa region are targeting LGBT people based on their online activity on social media.
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LGBT Rights Activist, Blogger
I used to share my daily journals on social media platforms such as Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter. I posted a live broadcast on Facebook where I spoke about LGBT rights. I was met with online hostility, and I became the target of a smear campaign where I was outed as gay which led to my arrest in Saudi Arabia.
I'd find thousands of comments, including swearing, demeaning language, and threats. I still receive death threats online to this day. I used to report them to social media companies, but the platforms didn’t respond.
Security forces in the MENA region use digital targeting tactics to entrap LGBT people, harass them online, and expose their private information and identities without their consent.
This has led to far-reaching offline consequences, including arbitrary arrests and prosecutions based on digital “evidence,” ill-treatment in detention, as well as crackdowns on LGBT rights activism.
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LGBTQ Rights Activist, Actress
What happened in January 2021, some of the [Tunisian] former parliamentarians published my photos and changed the public opinion against me, and also targeted many other activists through [social media] posts that incited violence and discrimination.
The majority of the threats were acts of bullying on the way I looked and my gender identity.
I spent 3 or 4 months away from my house, in fear of online threats and the real ones in the streets and where I lived.
I went to the police station to file a complaint because I was accosted in the street by a police officer with verbal harassment. I told him I will complain to the police, and he said go ahead. The case soon changed against me. I was the victim and became the perpetrator.
The series of attacks that lasted for two years affected my mental health to a great extent. I attempted suicide 3 times in 2 years, one of which put me in a coma for 48 hours. I had to leave Tunisia.
Social media platforms should proactively remove abusive content that violates platform standards on harassment, hate speech, and incitement to violence, which could put people at risk.
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Ayia Napa, Cyprus
I’m from Cyprus. On January 15, 2020, I got arrested outside my hotel in Egypt when my client told the police that I’m an escort and showed him my advertising on the internet. The policemen took screenshots of personal messages and also photos from my phone and make it evidence against to me in court.
Under the law against homosexuality [debauchery], I was sentenced not for being an escort, but just [based on] five photos on the internet.
My experience in Egypt, being arrested was horrible. They [the police] make me feel like I’m not human being. The first two weeks were the worst because no one came to my room [cell] from my embassy or a lawyer. I was tortured by police, and they raped me 22 times. I stayed with them [the policemen for] like 290 days. They didn't give me food or water, so a lot of times I ate from the garbage. My health was very bad because I lost a lot of weight. I couldn't walk. I couldn't even go to toilet. A lot of times I cried, and they don’t have sympathy. They don’t care.
Security forces should be held accountable for targeting LGBT people, online and offline.
Authorities’ use of digital targeting tactics to curtail free expression and persecute LGBT people should stop.
I miss my lover, and my girlfriends that were with me constantly, through thick and thin. I miss them all so much.
Today, I like to move on. Every time when I see my face in the mirror, I say OK, you are good. I like you, go out and have fun.
I am still seeing a therapist to this day because of what I had been through. I feel very safe now in Sweden. The people here are very peaceful. I feel safe because now I have my rights. I am still an activist on social media and will continue to be so until I can change people online and in reality. Perhaps they will be able to accept those that are different.