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Egypt targets gay community, charges 52

In a high-profile crackdown on suspected homosexual activity that has been condemned by activists and human rights groups, 52 men were charged Wednesday in a state security court with engaging in immoral acts or religious offenses.

The accused were by far the largest group of men put on trial at once in Egypt for alleged homosexual acts, and the courtroom _ far too small to contain the defendants, their guards, some three dozen lawyers, scores of family members and journalists _ was near pandemonium.

When the prosecutor read out the charge that most of the defendants were accused of "practicing debauchery with men," the defendants cried out almost in unison: "It did not happen! This is injustice!" All pleaded not guilty.

The sensational trial is part of a pattern of what gay Egyptians call stepped-up harassment of any homosexual activity in the past eight to 10 months, much of it related to the Internet. Many believe the government has acted to try to stamp out what was becoming an increasingly vocal gay community.

Homosexuality is not specifically outlawed in Egypt, and lawyers and international human rights groups accused the government of President Hosni Mubarak of circumventing the regular judicial system and its appeal process to bring a dubious case to trial.

They noted that the largely misdemeanor charges of obscene behavior had been brought before a special Emergency State Security Court, set up decades ago to protect against threats to national security.

"What is very troubling is the use of these emergency or military or extraordinary procedures for a case that in a democratic state really ought to be dealt with in a normal judicial process," said Hany Megally, the Middle East director of Human Rights Watch.

The same laws have been used to try Islamic activists seeking to overthrow the government and a prominent advocate for democratic reform. There is no appeal unless the president intervenes.

Two of the men were charged Wednesday with religious offenses _ they include contempt for religion, falsely interpreting the Koran and exploiting Islam to promote deviant ideas _ which could get them five years in jail. The morals charge leveled against the rest of the men carries a maximum of three years.

Lawyers and human rights groups said the accused underwent humiliating medical examinations in prison to determine whether they had recently engaged in anal intercourse. In addition, they said, the men apparently were beaten until they confessed to having a preference for homosexual acts.

Lawyers said they believed the government's case is weak because such morals charges usually require witnesses.

"It is a typical government attitude, to create from nothing cases to keep people busy talking and distract them from more pressing problems like poverty, corruption and unemployment," said Maha Youssef of the Hisham Mubarak Center for Human Rights, which is defending several of the men.

The defendants, handcuffed and dressed in white T-shirts and pants, occupied one side of the stifling room. They chanted in unison that they did not want their pictures taken, sobbing or hiding their faces with scraps of newspaper or plastic bags whenever a flash popped.

Several of their relatives beat photographers, while one prisoner had what guards called an epileptic seizure and had to be carted from the room.

On the other side of the aisle, lawyers, relatives and journalists stood on the benches and climbed on top of each other in an attempt to witness the proceedings.

The prosecution, yelling above the din, did not present any evidence against the accused before the judge delayed the next hearing until Aug. 15. The accused have been held without bail for more than two months.

Many of the men were arrested May 11 when the state security police raided the Queen Boat, a Nile riverboat discotheque moored in the upscale Zamalek neighborhood.

The club had become popular with the gay community because it allowed men to enter without a female date.

After the 2 a.m. raid, the police let about 10 foreign men leave _ apparently not wanting to get foreign embassies involved.

But police used the press to build a sensational case against the Egyptian men, releasing their names and details of their jobs.

The news reports hinted that the men had taken part in Satanic rituals and a porno film to be released over the Internet. Those accusations later disappeared.

"It is a way of sending a signal to the rest of the community that if you try to be more public about your behavior, you run the risk of being arrested and convicted," said Megally.

Sometimes the vice squad logged onto matchmaking services that advertised men seeking men, answered the announcements and then arrested the man who turned up for a rendezvous.

In one case, a student in the United States planning to attend the American University in Cairo in the fall posted a notice on a gay bulletin board asking if he would have to spend the year in celibacy. The Egyptian student who responded saying there was a gay community here was arrested.

Dr. Abd al-Moaty Bayoumy, dean of theology at Al-Azhar University, noted that Islamic law considers homosexuality a worse offense than adultery and that it is punishable by death.

"We consider it strange how the laws of Western civilization are not alert to the danger of this crime, but encourage it in the name of freedom," he said.