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23 Egyptians sentenced for gay sex

Egyptian men wept and screamed inside a crowded courtroom cage Wednesday as a judge sentenced 23 of them to jail terms of one to five years for gay sex in a trial denounced by human rights groups as persecution of homosexuals.

Another 29 men were acquitted, prompting cries of joy from relatives who had denied the charges and accused the Egyptian media during the four-month trial of sensationalism and destroying the young men's reputations.

Only a few people were allowed into the courtroom to hear the verdicts, and outside, police wielding sticks drove back a crowd of about 200 relatives, lawyers, journalists and passers-by.

Crammed into a courtroom cage, the 52 defendants in white prison uniforms wept and screamed as the presiding judge read out the sentences. Most could not hear what sentence they received.

One defendant kissed the Koran, Islam's holy book; another screamed at a news cameraman. Most covered their faces, some with masks fashioned from handkerchiefs.

The presiding judge, Mohammed Abdel Karim, read his verdicts and sentences quickly, ignoring the defendants' shouts and chants from some relatives.

"We will appeal to God! He is our defender!" several relatives shouted.

When news of the sentences came in bits and pieces from people leaving the court, one elderly woman joyfully distributed sweets and soft drinks, saying she had heard her son was among those acquitted.

Another mother, upon hearing that her son had been convicted and sentenced to two years, wept, saying her son was not a homosexual.

The men were put on trial after police raided a Nile boat restaurant in May and accused them of taking part in a gay sex party.

Homosexuality is not explicitly referred to in the Egyptian legal system, but a wide range of laws covering obscenity, prostitution and public morality are punishable by jail terms.

"Those convicted have either admitted (to homosexual activities) or someone testified against them. Without testimonies, there was no sentence," said Fawzi el-Hagan, a lawyer who represented a number of defendants.

Medical tests also were used as evidence against a number of defendants.

Sherif Farahat, thought to have been the group's leader, received the longest sentence: five years of hard labor for debauchery, contempt of religion, falsely interpreting the Koran and exploiting Islam to promote deviant ideas.

Mahmoud Ahmed Allam received three years on the religious charges but was acquitted of debauchery.

Twenty others were sentenced to two years, and one man was sentenced to one year for debauchery.

Local and international human rights groups criticized the trial. Amnesty International accused Egypt of persecuting people for their sexual orientation and said the type of court, the Emergency State Security Court, was not independent.

Judge Abdel Karim told Associated Press Television News the case was tried in his court because the defendants endangered "national security."

Emergency state security courts verdicts can only be appealed to the president.

Among those arrested in the same case was a teenager who was tried separately, and convicted and sentenced in September to three years in prison. The boy is appealing the verdict in a juvenile court.

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