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Arrests and torture of gays, lesbians in Egypt are ‘systematic,’ rights report says

People walk past a banner supporting proposed amendments to the Egyptian constitution and bearing an image of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in Cairo on April 16, 2019. (Amr Nabil/AP)

CAIRO — The Egyptian government continues to target gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in a "systematic fashion" through arbitrary arrests, torture and other forms of abuse, including forced "virginity tests," Human Rights Watch said Thursday.

The watchdog group accused police personnel and officers of Egypt’s National Security Agency of routinely picking up suspected LGBT people off the streets and detaining them in “inhuman conditions,” often after illegally searching their phones. Security forces have also “entrapped LGBT people through social networking sites and dating applications,” Human Rights Watch said.

“Egyptian authorities seem to be competing for the worst record on rights violations against LGBT people in the region, while the international silence is appalling,” Rasha Younes, LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

The Egyptian government did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.

The report comes three months after a prominent LGBT activist, Sarah Hegazi, took her own life in June, while in exile in Canada, triggering anger and shock across the Middle East and elsewhere. Egyptian security forces detained Hegazi in 2017 after she raised a rainbow pride flag at a concert in Cairo by the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, whose lead singer is openly gay. Hegazi accused police of torturing her and inciting fellow detainees to beat and sexually harass her, according to human rights activists.

Thursday’s report shows that Hegazi’s “mistreatment is part of a larger and systematic pattern of abuse against LGBT people in Egypt,” Human Rights Watch said.

Hegazi’s “tragic death may have ignited waves of shock and solidarity worldwide, but Egypt has unabashedly continued to target and abuse LGBT people simply for who they are,” Younes said.

The targeting of LGBT people is part of an ongoing crackdown on human rights and free expression by the government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, whose rule is widely seen as the most authoritarian in Egypt’s modern history. While homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, authorities have been using a 1960s anti-prostitution law that contains a clause against “debauchery,” which Egyptian courts have interpreted to include homosexuality.

In the weeks following the 2017 Mashrou’ Leila concert, authorities arrested scores of LGBT people and handed out harsh prison sentences, prompting the U.N. human rights office to declare the anti-gay raids violations of international law.

Nevertheless, the targeting of LGBT activists continued.

With the help of a Cairo-based LGBT rights group, Human Rights Watch said, it interviewed 15 people, including LGBT people prosecuted under such “debauchery” and “prostitution laws” between 2017 and 2020. All of the detained said police subjected them to verbal and physical abuse, including slaps and being hosed down with water and tied up for days, according to Human Rights Watch.

Nine interviewees said police officers ordered other detainees to abuse them. Eight were victims of sexual violence, including forced anal exams and “virginity tests,” said Human Rights Watch. Four said they were denied medical care, while eight said they were forced to sign confessions. All said they were held for periods as long as four months without access to a lawyer, the group reported.

“They didn’t let me go to the bathroom,” one victim told Human Rights Watch. After his arrest in Cairo in 2019, he said, police beat him up and forced him to stand for three days in a dark room with his hands and feet tied with a rope. “I had to wet my clothes and even [defecate] in them. I still had no idea why I was arrested.”

Another interviewee said that after she was detained at a 2018 protest in Cairo, female police officers forcibly conducted three “virginity tests,” after which she “bled for three days and could not walk for weeks.”

In August, security forces arrested two men who witnessed a highly publicized gang rape at a downtown Cairo hotel and were to provide evidence, Human Rights Watch said. Officers searched the men’s phones and used photos they found to accuse them of homosexuality. They were subjected to anal examinations, remain detained and could face prosecution under the “debauchery” laws, Human Rights Watch said.

The Sissi government has repeatedly ignored international calls to end discrimination and arrests of LGBT people, according to human rights activists. In March, at the U.N. Human Rights Council, Egypt refused to even recognize the existence of LGBT people.

“Morality and public order are hijacked, not preserved, when security forces arbitrarily arrest people and subject them to life-altering abuse in detention,” Younes said. “Egypt’s partners should halt support to its abusive security forces until the country takes effective steps to end this cycle of abuse, so that LGBT people can live freely in their country.”