Egypt's LGBT "Witch Hunt"

18 January 2015
Published in Blog

By Seema Iyer, Esq.

January 18, 2015

Is the recent acquittal in Egypt’s bathhouse trial a sign of progress for its LGBT community – or simply a judicial blip in a country notorious for its homophobia?

On December 7, 2014, a Cairo bathhouse was raided after prominent journalist, Mona Al-Iraqi, admittedly tipped off police then filmed half-naked men being dragged to detention. Al-Iraqi then aired the footage on her program ‘The Hidden’ noting that she exposed “a den of mass perversion spreading AIDS in Egypt.”

The men were arrested on charges of debauchery and performing indecent public acts. Homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt. Allegedly.

Saying homosexuality is not criminal in Egypt is a cloak of pretext. Article 9(c) of Law 10/1961 titled, “Combating Prostitution, Incitement and its Encouragement” criminalizes the habitual practice of debauchery. This offense covers consensual sex between men…….so how is it not criminal to be gay in Egypt?!

Also startling is Article 40 of Egypt’s Constitution that claims, “citizens are equal before the law” with “equal rights and duties without discrimination between them due to race, ethnic origin, language, religion or creed” – see anything missing from that list folks? Sexual orientation and gender are notably absent. (Although it should be noted that there are still 29 states in the United States where people can legally be fired simply for being gay.)

The case was rushed to trial within weeks, for reasons which I am still unclear, but nonetheless gave a sense of urgency to secure a conviction. The verdict was a rare victory that doesn’t give everyone tremendous hope.

Omar Sharif, Jr., grandson of Hollywood legend, is an LGBT activist and spokesperson for GLAAD. Sharif explained to me that, “the Judge looked at the facts and decided this was a case without basis or merit; consisting of a fabricated story, fabricated evidence, false testimony and a rushed trial. Sadly though, it appears the men were found not guilty based on legal technicalities and not on substance.” The court did cite weaknesses in the case documents and the forensic report.

It is widely known that Egyptian authorities are on a quest to punish homosexuality. In the past 18 months, approximately 150 men have been arrested or put on trial for charges of debauchery. Sharif, who was partially raised in Egypt, appropriately describes the climate as a “witch hunt.”

He goes on, “it still remains extraordinarily difficult – if not dangerous – for LGBT people to live openly in Egypt.”

And their estimated population is significant at up to 12 percent. Compare that with a 2013 Pew Research study that finds 95 percent of Egyptians believe homosexuality should not be accepted by society. It quantifies the conflict, repression and fear.

As for the 26 men acquitted in the bathhouse trial, the prosecution has the right to appeal – twice. They have already filed a first appeal. Sharif is “cautiously optimistic that the verdict in the case will stand up to appeals.” 

Meanwhile, Tarek Al-Awadi, the defendants’ lawyer told the Daily News Egypt he will be suing Al-Iraqi for filming, reporting and mischaracterizing the defendants. He is also considering suing the police officer who headed the arrests.

Mona Al-Iraqi’s “report was dangerous, irresponsible, malicious and fictitious; it was a crime against LGBT people everywhere, an attack on basic humanity, common decency, and an assault on journalistic integrity” according to Sharif. Many join in his sentiment although the real issue is changing the law which Solidarity with Egypt LGBT is campaigning for.

Sharif added these thoughts, “the only way for a culture to move forward towards LGBT acceptance and understanding is through honest, authentic interactions between LGBT people and ordinary citizens.   Sadly, sensationalist stories and images like these only push anti-LGBT attitudes to the forefront of the daily national discourse, making it even more difficult for LGBT people to live openly and freely.”

The Egyptian AIDS Society, Human Rights Watch and LGBT activists around the globe have also been increasingly vocal against Egypt’s crackdown on its gay population. Perhaps the bathhouse trial victory is giving a glimmer of encouragement that their cause indeed has support.

A movement for change needs leaders, action and numbers. Perhaps Egypt’s LGBTs have finally reached their moment where freedom is in sight and fear is fading.

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Seema Iyer is a criminal defense & civil rights attorney with her own lawfirm in NYC.  She hosts the weekly legal show "The Docket" on Shift by MSNBC‎.com.   S‎eema also appears frequently on television as a legal analyst. Follow her on Twitter @seemaiyeresq

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