Egypt: Mass Arrests Amid LGBT Media Blackout

The Egyptian government has intensified its campaign against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and their supporters, arresting dozens of people in less than two weeks, Human Rights Watch said today. A media regulatory body has also banned all “positive” reporting on homosexuality.

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Since September 22, 2017, when several young people waved rainbow flags at a Cairo concert featuring the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, security forces have been relentless in their bid to track down people suspected of being gay or supporting LGBT rights – most of whom had no involvement with the rainbow flag display. According to one Cairo-based LGBT rights organisation, there have been at least 43 arrests under Egypt’s abusive laws that outlaw “debauchery” and “incitement to debauchery.” Another group monitoring the arrests, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), put the figure as high as 54.

Egypt should immediately halt this vicious crackdown on a vulnerable group simply for waving a flag,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa Director at Human Rights Watch. “Repression will not turn gay people straight – it will only perpetuate fear and abuse.”

As of October 4, courts had sentenced at least six people to between one and six years in prison for “debauchery” and “incitement to debauchery.” Others are scheduled to stand trial on October 12 and October 29. An appeal is scheduled for October 11 in the case of the first man arrested, who was sentenced to six years in prison on September 26.

On October 1, Egypt’s Supreme State Security Prosecution ordered two activists, Sarah Hegazy and Ahmed Alaa, to be detained for 15 days pending investigation for allegedly joining a banned group aimed at interfering with the constitution. Hegazy told her lawyers that police officers at al-Sayeda Zeinab Police Station in Cairo allowed fellow detainees to beat and sexually harass her after informing them of the reason for her arrest.

Alaa, who confirmed raising the rainbow flag in support of Mashrou’ Leila’s openly gay lead singer, said in a BuzzFeed video before his arrest that he had received death threats. Egypt is a member of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which calls on all member states to protect people from violence on the grounds of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

Rights groups in Egypt said that security forces have subjected at least six of the people detained to forced anal examinations, which often involve a doctor inserting a finger or object into the anus of the accused person and drawing conclusions about their alleged sexual behaviour. These exams have no scientific basis and have been denounced by African and international human rights bodies as cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, which can constitute a form of torture. Lebanon and Tunisia have both banned anal exams, following pressure from human rights groups and medical associations, but Egypt still publicly defends them.

In the midst of this latest crackdown, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation – a government body established in 2017 whose head is appointed by the president – issued an order that prohibits the “promotion or dissemination of homosexual slogans.” It adds that “it is forbidden for homosexuals to appear in any media outlet whether written, audio or visual, except when they acknowledge their wrong conduct and repent for it.”

The council, which has the power to fine or suspend media outlets, refers to homosexuality as “a pure, great and eternal evil that must be rooted out.” It calls on the media to “shed light on these dangers, and discuss them in an objective, scientific framework that aims to convey the danger of the problem, not celebrate it.”

“There’s no possible objective or scientific reason to throw people in prison simply because of their sexuality,” said Whitson. “Given the mass arrests and climate of fear, truly objective reporting on this issue and giving LGBT people a voice is more important than ever.”