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Wednesday, 18 July, 2001, 14:52 GMT 15:52 UK
'Extremist' gay trial opens in Egypt
The accused men make their way to the court
One newspaper said gays should face the death penalty
More than 50 suspected homosexuals have pleaded innocent in Egypt in a court case which is expected to draw widespread criticism from human rights groups.

The charges include
Exploiting the Islamic religion
Spreading extremist ideas
Sparking civil strife
Practising debauchery with men
Because Egyptian law does not expressly prohibit homosexuality, the men are being tried in a state security court for "propagating extremist ideas" and debauchery.

They appeared in court handcuffed and dressed in white. Several swore and screamed as the charges were read out.

"We've been detained without any evidence against us," one shouted.

Night club raid

The men were arrested in May during a police raid on a floating night club on the Nile.

Their case has sent shockwaves through Egypt's gay community, with most internet sites shut down out of fear of recriminations.

It has also led to an angry anti-gay backlash, with newspapers publishing the names and workplaces of some defendants and one paper calling for homosexuals to face the death penalty.

The two main defendants stand accused of "exploiting the Islamic religion to spread extremist ideas".

They are also accused of practising gay sex "as part of the group's rituals in front of the remaining defendants and others with the aim of insulting the heavenly religions and sparking civil strife".

The remaining defendants are charged with "practising debauchery with men".

"This case exhibits some of the worse features of Egypt's justice system,"

Human Rights Watch and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission

If convicted, they could face five-year jail sentences.

Torture allegations

The case has been attacked by human rights groups, who complain the men have been tortured in detention and subjected to examinations to see if they had engaged in homosexual acts.

"This case exhibits some of the worse features of Egypt's justice system," a joint statement by the Human Rights Watch and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission said last month.

According to reports from the defendants' families and friends, the men were initially unable to contact lawyers or relatives. The flatmate of one man told the Cairo Times: "He's been whipped, electrified and threatened by dogs".

Amnesty International has called for the men's "immediate and unconditional release".

Cairo at night
The men were arrested at a floating night club

Analysts say the case shows how much homosexuality is still a taboo in Egypt, where many people are not prepared to even acknowledge it exists.

"The propaganda, hatred and prejudice shown in some (newspaper) articles is the depressing reality of Egypt today," according to web site

Because the men are being tried in a state security court under emergency laws, they have no right to appeal. The laws have been in place since 1981 and were designed to deal with Muslim extremist violence.

Gay Egyptians say state security police have been cracking down on them for months.

"It's the same strategy as they used with the Muslim Brotherhood: arrest some to frighten the rest," according to a 22-year-old gay man.

There have been reports of police arresting men after luring them on false dates via the internet.

The Interior Ministry set up a unit two years ago to monitor internet usage, a move seen as partly aimed at monitoring gay activities.

The club where the men were arrested, called the Queen Boat, had been raided before, but suspects were released after three to 10 days.

The BBC's Caroline Hawley
"There have been raids on gay establishments in Egypt in the past"
Gasser Abdel-Razzik, human rights activist
"What the government is doing is punishing people for something that is not a crime"
See also:

08 Jun 01 | Middle East
Protest at Egypt 'gay detentions'
01 Apr 01 | Middle East
Dubai closes club after gay night
24 Jun 01 | Americas
Muslims step out at Gay Pride
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