Even if they were acquitted on the ludicrous charge of “debauchery,” the 26 Egyptian men on trial in the government’s latest crackdown on gays are likely to suffer a lifetime of public scorn.
Over the past two years, there has been no shortage of travesties and injustices in Egypt’s courtrooms. The country’s ousted dictator, Hosni Mubarak, was sentenced to life in prison in 2012, laying on a stretcher placed within a cage, only to be acquitted two years later in a subsequent proceeding once his allies were in power again. Mr. Mubarak’s Islamist successor, Mohamed Morsi, who was removed from power in a military coup, was locked up in a soundproof cage at his trial last year. Three journalists employed by the Doha-based Al Jazeera English network were outrageously sentenced to lengthy prison terms in June on allegations that they had aided the Muslim Brotherhood, following a ridiculous trial that turned them into scapegoats of a fight between Egypt and Qatar.
The trial underway now seems particularly cruel. On Dec. 7, Mona Iraqi, a television journalist who works for a pro-government channel, barged into a traditional hammam, or bathhouse, in Cairo, to document what she billed as “the biggest den of group perversion” in the Egyptian capital. The police, operating in concert with her, promptly raided the establishment. Ms. Iraqi posted photos of naked men being corralled by authorities and promised viewers, in a since-deleted Facebook post, that her exposé would feature the “whole story of the dens for spreading AIDS in Egypt.”
The Egyptian government has persecuted gay men with varying degrees of intensity over the past two decades. The latest crackdown has driven the gay community underground like never before. It is not entirely clear why Egypt’s military leaders have ordered, or condoned, the prosecutions of men accused of being gay. In a deeply conservative Muslim country, demonizing sexual minorities has served in the past as an effective way of deflecting attention from actual problems the state has failed to fix.
As part of the investigation, most of the men taken into custody were subjected to forensic anal exams, a depraved practice denounced by human rights groups and discredited by international medical professionals. The tests, performed in an effort to determine whether the men had had anal sex, are used as evidence in judicial proceedings.
As the trial, which began on Dec. 21, resumed on Sunday, some of the defendants, standing inside a courtroom cage, used hoodies to cover their faces. Some wept, according to reporters allowed inside the courtroom. The judge said on Monday that he would issue a verdict on Jan. 12. Gay sex is not explicitly illegal under Egyptian law, so authorities have traditionally charged them with “debauchery,” a broad term typically used to prosecute sex workers.
Egypt’s treatment of gays is part of a dismal human rights record that has only gotten worse in recent months. The Obama administration and American lawmakers have not done enough to denounce the abuses of anincreasingly authoritarian Egyptian government, which is one of the largest recipients of American military aid. As Congress convenes this week, influential lawmakers should take a fresh look at the plight of vulnerable Egyptians and speak out on their behalf. Among them are Representative Kay Granger, a Texas Republican who has fought efforts to pare back Egypt’s military package, and Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the incoming chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
The 26 men on trial now may never be able to shed the stigma this prosecution has inflicted on them, their careers and their families. But strong international condemnation may keep authorities in Egypt from victimizing more men.