The Egyptian government continues to systematically target lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Human Rights Watch (HRW) listed arbitrary arrests, inhumane detainments, torture, sexual violence, and various forms of abuse, including anal examinations and “virginity tests” in an extensive report this week. Although Egyptian law does not explicitly criminalize homosexuality or cross-dressing, the nature of these arrests and abuses, as well as Egypt’s official statements denying LGBT rights, reflect a coordinated policy to persecute LGBT people. The abuses violate both Egypt’s obligations under international treaties and the rights guaranteed in Egypt’s constitution.
The report comes three months after Sarah Hegazy, a prominent LGBT activist—who was detained in 2017 after raising a rainbow flag at the Mashrou’ Leila concert in Cairo—took her own life while in exile in Canada. She had said the police tortured her and incited fellow detainees to sexually harass and beat her.
Rasha Younes, an LGBT rights researcher at HRW 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.” She added, “Sarah Hegazy’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.”
In reviewing judicial files between 2017 and 2020 for 13 cases of people prosecuted under “debauchery” and “prostitution,” the rights group found that Egyptian authorities have routinely been making random arrests off the streets based solely on people’s gender expression, as well as entrapping and arresting them through social media sites (Facebook and Whatsapp) and same-sex dating applications (Grindr).
With the help of a Cairo-based LGBT organization, Human Rights Watch also interviewed 15 people, the majority of them being LGBT people persecuted under such accusations. All the victims were subjected to verbal and physical abuse by the police. The rights group also documented extracted forced confessions, as well as refusal to provide the detainees with legal counsel and medical care.
One of the interviewees, “Yasser,” 27, was arrested for “selling alcohol” in September 2019 after meeting a man he had met on Grindr. He was taken to a “morality ward,” where he found out the man he met on Grindr was one of the officers. After a week of detention—where he got beat up and assaulted by officers and other detainees so hard he lost consciousness—he was taken to Giza Central Prison, where he was tortured and verbally humiliated. He later found a lawyer to appeal his case and was deemed “innocent,” but said, “My family stopped talking to me, my brother threatened to kill me, I was too afraid to walk on the street. I lost everything.”
Another interviewee, Malak el-Kashif, 20, a political activist and transgender woman, was arrested on March 6, 2019, after participating in a protest in Cairo. She said, “During the police investigation, they asked me about my private life, my sex-reassignment surgery, my trans identity,” and forced her to sign a police report without allowing her to read it. She was detained for 15 days in al-Haram Police Station, where she was sexually assaulted and subjected to a forced anal exam. She was later sent to a men’s prison for 135 days, where she was denied medical treatment for her arm, and continuation of her hormone treatment to undergo further gender-affirming surgeries. She said the solitary confinement really affected her mental health, adding, “I still have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and social phobia, I’m not the person I was.”
These abuses violate numerous fundamental rights, including rights to privacy, bodily integrity, protection against inhuman and degrading treatment and torture, freedom of expression and assembly, as well as the right to non-discrimination and protection under the constitution. But Egypt has repeatedly rejected recommendations by multiple countries to end such discriminations and arrests based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and most recently, in March, at the United Nations Human Rights Council, they refused to recognize the existence of LGBT people.
Human Rights Watch urged Egyptian authorities to end arrests for adult, consensual sexual relations, including same-sex relations, release LGBT people who remain arbitrarily detained, and ban the use of “virginity tests” and forced anal exams.
Younes said, “Morality and public order are hijacked, not preserved, when security forces arbitrarily arrest people and subject them to life-altering abuse in detention,” adding , “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.”
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