Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 March 2004
Issue No. 680
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Not just the Queen Boat

HRW is asking the Egyptian government to stop persecuting homosexuals and commit to reform

For years, downtown's Al-Tewfikiya street was synonymous with the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, until a government clampdown on the illegal group shut that head office down in 1995. Nine years down the road, some may find it somewhat ironic that the very same street would become associated with the launch of the largest-ever campaign against police abuse of homosexuals in Egypt.

On Monday, at its Al-Tewfikiya street offices, the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre hosted a joint press conference with the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) to announce the release of a 144-page report called In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice in Egypt's Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct.

The report accused the government of routinely torturing men suspected of consensual homosexual conduct. "The detention and torture of hundreds of men reveals the fragility of legal protections for individual privacy and due process for all Egyptians," it said.

Four other Egyptian human rights organisations -- the Egyptian Association Against Torture, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Nadim Centre for the Psychological Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information -- also helped HRW launch the report.

It was clear that this was not just another HRW report exposing human rights violations in Egypt. The presence of HRW executive director Kenneth Roth, as well as Joe Stork, the executive director of the group's Middle East and North Africa division, and Scott Long, its lesbian, gay and transgender rights researcher, made that obvious, as did the attendance of the founders and directors of the five Egyptian groups. The event's speakers loudly denounced what they called "institutionalised" police torture against those "unpopular" with the government.

Although Monday's event was also held to discuss the release of the Arabic version of HRW's Security Forces Abuse of Anti-War Demonstrators report, the two-hour press conference focussed on police abuse of homosexuals, encouraging one person in the audience -- an Egyptian who identified himself as Bahaa -- to recount his own personal story as a gay man who had been "persecuted" by the authorities.

There are more homosexuals in Egypt "than the government likes to admit", said Aida Seif El-Dawla, director of the Egyptian Association Against Torture, "and they should be allowed to form their own associations and claim their rights without persecution."

Roth said, "when we talk about the situation of homosexuals in Egypt, we don't describe the Queen Boat Case, but we describe a continuing practice of arresting and torturing gay men." A Cairo court sentenced 21 men to prison in 2003 after it found them guilty of "habitual debauchery", in a case named after the nightclub they were arrested in, the Queen Boat. Roth pointed out that, under the pretext of medical exams, the Forensic Medical Authority contributed to the torture of the defendants.

"The Cairo vice squad," Roth said, "continues to arrest gay men and to entrap them. These practices violate the Egyptian constitution, which protects privacy and prohibits torture."

HRW "didn't come here to defame Egypt, but to engage in a dialogue with it," he added. The last time Roth visited Egypt was in 1992, when HRW released a lengthy report on the torture and persecution of Islamist groups and suspected militants. "Despite 12 years to try and address the problem of torture, the Egyptian government hasn't since 1986 persecuted any State Security Investigation (SSI) officer. It saddens me to have to address the same issue again." Roth said.

"We don't pretend that Egypt is alone in the torture problem, but nonetheless, it has a severe problem," he argued. "The government says it's committed to reform [without outside intervention]. A good way of doing that is ending torture."

Roth told the audience that the general prosecutor confirmed to him that none of the SSI officers accused of torture has ever been prosecuted. A scheduled appointment with Interior Minister Habib El- Adly was cancelled at the last minute, Roth told Al- Ahram Weekly. He met with ministry official General Ahmed Omar instead. "While he conceded that torture is a problem, he spent most of the time explaining that victims of torture were falsifying their claims."

The Interior Ministry official also told Roth that police personnel involved in torture had been prosecuted, and that five were actually convicted. "This is a step in the right direction," Roth said, "but it's a small step and doesn't address the magnitude of the problem."

Several speakers said systematic torture was not limited to political dissent cases, but continues to be a general practice of the security apparatus "which occurs without punishment."

Although Roth insisted that HRW does not advocate homosexuality or any form of sexual conduct, he described the government's approach to the issue as an implementation of "a 19th century scientific misunderstanding". Later, he produced a copy of the independent weekly Al-Midan newspaper, which ran front-page photos of heterosexual couples holding hands and hugging, while urging the government to stop such forms of deviant behaviour. "The government has no business condemning adult sexual conduct," Roth said.

This type of statement, however, would appear to also throw itself right back at HRW. What business does it have interfering with how Egyptian society or government deals with sexual conduct? "We are not telling people how to lead their private lives," Roth told the Weekly, "our interest is in seeing that the rights in the Egyptian constitution and the rights in international law are respected. We want the right to not be tortured and privacy not to be invaded."

Along the same lines, the government often accuses human rights groups of importing a Western agenda that offends local religious and cultural values. Rights groups deny this claim, but independent critics argue that it's not void of some truth. Citing the failure of these groups to create a grass-roots movement, critics point to "imported" issues such as female genital mutilation and gay rights as proof that many human rights groups have a Western agenda that seems more important than pressing issues that matter to ordinary Egyptians -- such as environmental, labour, housing and educational rights.

The issues brought up by the press conference, and Roth's reference to "political reform", also reminded some in the audience of US efforts to impose its own vision of democracy in Egypt as part of the US administration's plan for a Greater Middle East. One reporter asked Roth whether the timing of the new HRW report was linked to any of this. Roth denied the charge. "It saddens me how US policy lacks credibility in this region for reasons we know -- its policy in Iraq, its failure to address Israeli policies and its policy in Guantanamo and Afghanistan."

In the same vein, Roth said, although Egypt "claims" it's committed to "reform, I wish it had more credibility."

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