Convicted before the fact
Human rights activists said that the ongoing Queen Boat case is "a flagrant violation of basic principles of justice"
Dubbed the Queen Boat case by the press, the ongoing case involving dozens of men accused of "habitual debauchery" with other men was once again in the spotlight this week, after a Cairo misdemeanours court sentenced 21 defendants to three-year prison terms on Saturday, inspiring an international and domestic human rights outcry, reports Jailan Halawi .
Although there is no law explicitly forbidding homosexuality in Egypt, the group of men arrested on the Queen Boat was essentially convicted based on a law that penalises promiscuity and prostitution. Since the Queen Boat arrests, other men accused of being gay have been quietly detained, with some subsequently convicted and jailed.
The verdict was reached during a retrial of a case that began two years ago when arrests were made during a party held at the Queen Boat nightclub, moored along the banks of the Nile. In November 2001, an Emergency State Security Court for Misdemeanours convicted 21 of the 52 men who had been arrested on charges of debauchery and deriding religion, handing down prison terms of one to two years for each.
The key defendant was given a five-year term for deriding religion and debauchery, while his alleged aide received a three-year sentence for deriding Islam, but was acquitted of debauchery. In May 2002, President Hosni Mubarak, in his capacity as military governor, endorsed the guilty verdicts against those two key defendants, while rescinding all the other verdicts, thus opening the door for a retrial for the remaining 50.
That retrial, which took place at the Qasr Al-Nil Misdemeanours Court, again found 21 of the 50 defendants guilty of "habitual debauchery". This time, though, they were sentenced to a harsher sentence of three years in prison, to be followed by three years of police probation. In explaining the verdict, the court said that after reviewing both the confessions and medical reports of the 21 defendants, the court was confident that they deserved the maximum penalty afforded by the law.
In response, the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre (HMLC), the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and the Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence issued a joint statement expressing their "astonishment and outrage" over what they called "the conviction without trial of people tried for consensual homosexual conduct in the Queen Boat case". The organisations described the trial as "a flagrant, scandalous violation of internationally-recognised fair trial principles".
The American Embassy in Cairo also issued a statement expressing its "disappointment" at the verdict, saying, "we have on previous occasions raised with the government of Egypt our concern about allegations that some of the defendants had been convicted in the first trial on the basis of confessions obtained under duress, and by the appearance that the defendants may have been targeted for prosecution because of their sexual orientation." The statement also expressed concern that, as it prepared to reach a verdict, "the court did not hold any substantive session... [hence]... it appears that the defense lawyers were not given a full opportunity to defend their clients."
British Embassy spokesman Irafan Siddiq told Al-Ahram Weekly that the UK was disappointed as well. "The verdict is harsher than in the original case, and the defense was not given enough time to present their case. We are looking forward to a full and speedy appeal."
Helmi El-Rawi, a member of the defence team, provided the Weekly with details regarding what he viewed as the abnormal procedures faced by his clients at the hands of the court. According to El-Rawi, the presiding judge issued his verdict without allowing any member of the defence team to submit memos, present oral arguments or hear the testimony of any witnesses. El-Rawi explained that as the trial began last July, the defence team submitted numerous requests to the court, which were approved by the presiding judge. These included requests to summon for cross- examination the state security intelligence officers who investigated the case and allegedly made most of the arrests. "It was very important that those officers be cross-examined, for there were clear contradictions in their testimonies," El-Rawi said. However, until the judge issued his verdict, none of the officers had ever showed up in court.
El-Rawi also felt that the judge "was trying to send us a message that the Emergency State Security Court's verdict had been a better option".
According to El-Rawi, the Court of Appeal is due to start hearing the case on 4 June. According to unconfirmed reports inside the court, the prosecution might also appeal the cases of the 29 that were acquitted. As El- Rawi reviewed the proceedings that led to the ruling, he expressed his suspicions that the ruling had been taken on the basis of "religious rather than legal reasoning, which is a catastrophic precedent".
Nevertheless, El-Rawi expects acquittals, "once the case is subject to a fair trial by the higher court".