Egypt faces backlash as 52 gay men go on trial

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International concern is mounting over the fate of 52 suspected gay men who are on trial in Egypt on charges of practising debauchery after they attended a party on a luxury Nile riverboat.

International concern is mounting over the fate of 52 suspected gay men who are on trial in Egypt on charges of practising debauchery after they attended a party on a luxury Nile riverboat.

The unprecedented case, which is being tried in a state security court, has galvanised the world's gay community Protests are being planned to coincide with the resumption of the trial in Cairo on 29 August.

But a cultural clash has erupted between Egyptian and foreign human rights activists, who are dismayed that local groups have not got involved. Egyptian campaigners argue that taking on gay rights could jeopardise their work on other human rights issues.

Since the early hours of 11 May, when police raided the Queen Boat, a floating disco known as a Cairo gay meeting place, arresting dozens of young men, Egyptian gays have gone further underground.

"It's never been comfortable being gay in Egypt," said one gay Egyptian. "Now it's dangerous. "After that raid, I was very scared. Every time I went out I thought I would be arrested. It's changed my view of living in Egypt."

Some of the 52 charged men, all Egyptian nationals, have reported being beaten when they were first taken into custody, as well as having internal medical examinations to determine whether or not they had sex with men.

The two main defendants are accused of "forming a group which aims to exploit the Islamic religion and propagate extremist ideas", while the rest are accused of "practising debauchery", a charge that can carry up to three years in jail and which, lawyers say, is usually used against prostitutes.

Homosexuality is a thorny social, cultural and religious issue in Egypt, but it is not explicitly criminalised by law. "There's not a single article in the penal code against those people," said Nigad Bor'ai, a lawyer. He suggested the government's real agenda was to try to divert people's attention from the economic and political problems of the country.

"I think it's a complete set-up," said a woman who waited outside court as a friend of hers appeared in the dock, with 51 others, in an iron cage. Some of the men wept as they protested their innocence.

She said: "I don't know if he's gay or not. He was on the boat, but straight people go there too, and the law doesn't say anything about sexual orientation."

Through the mesh of the cage, Ashraf, an English teacher, pleaded to journalists: "What have I done wrong? I've been in prison for 95 days, but for what crime? I'm not a criminal. We're really suffering."

There is little sympathy for the 52 men in wider Egyptian society, particularly after lurid newspaper reporting which has described the men as "perverts," devil-worshippers and Israeli agents. One man said: "I think homosexuality is a disease. That's why they're on trial because they're making disease."

So deep is the taboo against homosexuality that Egyptian human rights activists have been wary of taking up the case, fearing it could be professional suicide.

"It's sad but the government would use it to discredit us," said Hisham Kassem of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights.

"We don't have systematic persecution of gays in Egypt so there is no point in launching a gay rights campaign in a culture that does not accept same- sex relations."

Mr Kassem said he believed the arrests provided a warning that Egyptian security services are monitoring the internet.

Gay activists also believe the case may be linked to their increasing profile on the web. "They used to say homosexuality only existed in the West," said a man calling himself Horus, after a Pharaonic god believed to have been gay. "But, recently, they began arresting homosexuals through the internet by going to matchmaker sites and making false dates with gay men."

Horus said that until arrests on board The Queen the gay community had begun coming out on the internet, albeit anonymously. Now most of the mailing lists have closed down and Egyptian gays, Horus said, will go "back in the closet".

"Many gays now want to leave the country," he said. "Already I know people who've gone, but it isn't that easy."