3 min

Electroshock & unwarranted arrests

Report points finger at Egypt's treatment of gay men

Some have been whipped, beaten and bound. Some have had lit cigarettes sear their skin. And some have suffered electroshock on their genitals, limbs or tongue.

These are just a few of the ways the Egyptian government has been torturing gay men as part of its growing crackdown on homosexuality, says Human Rights Watch.

Earlier this month the international watchdog released an alarming report documenting how Egypt continues to arrest and routinely torture adult men who have consensual sex with other men.

The 144-page report, In A Time Of Torture: The Assault On Justice In Egypt’s Crackdown On Homosexual Conduct, is the result of the group’s three-month fact-finding mission early last year in Cairo.

Human Rights Watch interviewed victims, and the victims’ friends, families and partners, as well as attorneys, judges, government officials and other human rights activists.

According to the report, “Since early 2001, a growing number of men have been arrested, prosecuted and convicted for having sexual relations with other men.”

The group says it has identified 179 men who were charged under the law against “debauchery” since the beginning of 2001.

“In all probability that is only a minuscule percentage of the true total,” according to the report. “Hundreds of others have been harassed, arrested, often tortured, but not charged.”

Homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, but police have the power to arrest gay people for “habitual practice of debauchery,” which is a charge used to arrest prostitutes.

According to the human rights group, a web of public officials mete out the abuse: police use entrapment and informers to identify gay men, state-owned media vilify gay men, prison guards encourage prisoners to rape suspected homosexuals and doctors work on behalf of the justice ministry to “prove” men have had anal intercourse.

The crackdown’s most high-profile case began in May 2001, and made headlines around the world. Police raided a floating disco on the Nile, and subsequently arrested and charged 52 men with debauchery and contempt of religion. People across the globe demonstrated at Egyptian embassies against the arrests.

After a controversial and sometimes violent four-month trial, 23 men were sentenced to jail terms of between one and five years; 29 others were acquitted.

When Human Rights Watch released its report during a news conference in Cairo on Mar 1, the advocacy group called on the Egyptian government to end arrests and prosecutions based on adult, consensual homosexual conduct, and to reform the criminal justice system so that all citizens are protected against torture and abuse.

“The prohibition against torture is absolute and universal, regardless of the victim,” said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Accepting torture of unpopular victims – whether for their political opinions or their sexual conduct – makes it easier for the government to use this despicable practice on many others.”

Human Rights Watch called on countries that offer aid to Egypt to condemn the crackdown on gay men and to tie a human rights component to foreign aid that’s given.

The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) is responsible for doling out Canada’s aid to Egypt. In 2001-’02, it gave it just over $21-million, says spokesperson Eleonora Karabatic.

Karabatic says the agency is aware of the allegations in the report, but is not reconsidering its aid strategy right now. While not speaking specifically to those allegations, Karabatic says Ottawa raises cases of “significant human rights abuses, and not only those involving homosexuals, with the government of Egypt when these come to our attention.”

Canada will continue to help Egypt financially because CIDA is confident Canadian money does not abet the crackdown.

“CIDA does not currently provide any training for Egyptian criminal-justice officials,” Karabatic says, “and CIDA’s due diligence and that of our partners ensures that our aid does not contribute to surveillance or persecution of vulnerable groups.”

She says Canadian money goes toward education and employment creation for vulnerable groups, particularly women and young people in poorer areas of the country.

A response to the report from the Egyptian consulate in Ottawa was not available by press time.