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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 March, 2002, 18:54 GMT
Egypt crackdown on homosexuals
The Queen Boat, the floating nightclub where a score of men were arrested for "being gay"

In Egypt, gay men have been sent to jail after a series of dubious trials - most notoriously a mass trial of 52 men.

Rosie Goldsmith gains rare interviews with men who have been prosecuted or who are at risk. She asks why the Egyptian Government has decided to crack down now.

 Listen to this programme in full

The police told the man to take down his trousers. They wanted to see if he was wearing typical Egyptian underwear - baggy white cotton. If he was not, they said he must be a homosexual. He failed the test.

The fate of the accused

The police started to beat him. They tortured him for three days. Six months later he still has scars on his arms and back.

From my religious view, all the religious people, in Christianity, in Judaism, condemn homosexuality
Dr Essam Elarian

But this man - who asked to remain anonymous - was lucky. He is free. He is one of 52 men arrested in a roundup in Cairo last year for allegedly being gay.

Of the accused, 29 were acquitted and 23 were convicted for debauchery and defaming Islam and sentenced to up to five years prison with hard labour.

The trial was held in a state security court, allowing no appeal.

Taboo

Homosexuality itself is not technically illegal in Egypt but it is a serious taboo - culturally, socially and now politically. Gay men are vilified by the press and the public.

Dr. Essam Elarian, a spokesman for the banned Muslim Brotherhood, expresses a common opinion. "From my religious view, all the religious people, in Christianity, in Judaism, condemn homosexuality," he says. "It is against the whole sense in Egypt. The temper in Egypt is against homosexuality."

Until last year, the government denied that homosexuality even existed. No one knows why it changed policy and decided to begin its crackdown.

The crackdown

One commentator suggested it is because the authorities are trying to please influential clerics and a groundswell of popular Islam. Or perhaps it is to distract the public from Egypt's chronic economic problems. Or it is a cover-up for closet homosexuals in high places.

The chief government spokesman, Nabil Osman, is not willing to explain or apologise. "What we did was not a breach of human rights," he says.

"But actually an interpretation of the norms of our society, the family values of our society. And no one should judge us by their own values. And some of these values in the West are actually in decay."

Mr. Osman denied allegations that homosexuals had been tortured and said that torture victims had recourse to the courts, which are independent of the government. And he adds - correctly - that local human rights groups have not campaigned in defence of homosexuality.

Campaigning

I was given a frank explanation of this by Hisham Kassem, a respected independent commentator and also president of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights.

He says that if the EOHR had campaigned on the issue, the government press would have attacked it for trying to promote homosexuality.

"That would have killed the concept of human rights for the next ten years or so," he says. "And done nothing for (the men)." He argues that there are much more serious human rights issues in Egypt, like female genital mutilation.

He adds that the government has detained without trial perhaps 15,000 Islamists, most of whom are neither fundamentalists nor militants.

Dr. Elarian of the Muslim Brotherhood was himself detained and tortured for his political views.

No end in sight

Meanwhile the arrests of alleged homosexuals continue. They are unpredictable. While I was in Cairo I attended the appeal hearing of a young man entrapped by the police over a gay website. He had been convicted of distributing obscene material.

This was a normal criminal court - but as a reporter I was questioned and treated with suspicion. The case was adjourned and the petrified young man returned to jail to continue his term - of three years imprisonment with hard labour.

Also in this week's Crossing Continents:

  • The legacy of Umm Kulsoum, Egypt's greatest diva.
  • A tomb with a view. Rosie Goldsmith meets the people trying to beat Cairo's housing crisis by living in a cemetery.

Egypt cracks down on homosexuals: Thursday 7 March 2002 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio Four

Reporter: Rosie Goldsmith
Producer: Hugh Levinson
Editor: Sue Ellis


WATCH AND LISTEN
A gay Egyptian man, speaks about his life.
A gay Egyptian man, speaks about his life. His voice has been disguised.


From the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre
From the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre on why the organisation gave legal support to those arrested.


From the Muslim Brotherhood
From the Muslim Brotherhood says Egyptian society condemns homosexuality.



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SEE ALSO:
Tomb with a view
06 Mar 02  |  Africa


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