CAIRO — A Cairo court acquitted 26 men of charges of participating in a gay "sex party" at a public bathhouse in December.
The moment the judge pronounced the verdict, the court room exploded with the joyous cries of family. They rallied outside the court room pumping their fists in the air chanting, "Where is the press? Here are the real men!" calling for reporters to cover the exoneration of the men as aggressively as they sensationalized their arrest.
Half the seats in the court were filled with journalists, which included about a dozen from the foreign press.
The case became known throughout Egypt because a television broadcaster named Mona Iraqi was filming when police dragged them naked from the bathhouse on Dec. 7. Iraqi claimed to have tipped police off to sexual activities inside the bathhouse, and she featured it in a program purporting to tell, "the whole story of the dens for spreading AIDS in Egypt," on the three nights following the raid.
This is the first time a trial court has ever acquitted men accused of homosexuality in a high-profile case, according to human rights activists in Cairo. Tarek el-Awady, one of the defense lawyers, said this was a huge boost for the rule of law in Egypt. Egyptian courts routinely make convictions based on police testimony even when evidence is flimsy, and this was proof that at least some courts are unwilling to rubber stamp their actions.
"This means that the rule of law still exists in our country," al-Awady told BuzzFeed News outside the court. "This means that we still have law here. They haven't transformed it into a totally ruthless city."
Al-Awady said he would file suit against against the officer who led the raid, Lt. Col. Ahmed Hashad, whom lawyers accuse of fabricating his testimony on what he witnessed inside the bathhouse during the raid. He also said he would bring charges against Mona Iraqi.
Mona Iraqi is the greatest villain in this case in the eyes of the family members, and they said they want to see her punished along with Hashad.
"We will not leave Mona Iraqi," said a relative of one of the accused who gave his name as Mahmoud. "We will take her to court. We will not leave Ahmed Hashad. If I have to sell the furniture in my house to take a case to take her to jail, I will not let her rest until the end of her life."
One of the pieces of evidence seized upon by defense lawyers was the anal exams performed by police medical experts after their arrest. Egyptian authorities maintain testing the tightness of the anal sphincter can establish whether or not a man is gay, though many international medical experts say the exams are unreliable and human rights groups have denounced them as a violation of basic human rights.
But instead of reporting many of them had been penetrated — as Hashad claimed to have seen with his own eyes — the examiners reported only three had "wounds" in the anus. Defense attorney Mohamed Abo Zakry told BuzzFeed News that in these cases the examiners reported scratches or tears, which could be evidence of trauma that actually occurred after the men were in police custody.
One of these three men told lawyers that he had been raped after the group were thrown into a police cell while still naked alongside other prisoners, said Zakry, who works with the Egyptian Center for Civil Reform, which is representing seven of the defendants.
Zakry said one of the defendants told him that the police presented them to the other prisoners as a prize, recounting the police saying, "today is your lucky day — enjoy, guys! Here's your lollipop," using an Egyptian expression that roughly corresponds to "here's a hot piece of ass" in English. This defendant said he was then stripped of his towel, pushed to the floor, and raped, while police ignored his cries for help.
The other men with "wounds" in the anus, according to medical examiners, would not discuss the issue. The stigma against being penetrated by another man in Egypt is so strong that even the defendant who told Zakry about the assault would not allow lawyers to use his account to contest charges that could send him to jail for three years or more.
"How can he stand in the court and say he has been penetrated?" Zakry said. "Even if we can prove that he was raped inside the police station, this will never clear his reputation … once you have been penetrated, you are not considered a man."
The lawyers argued that Hashad's testimony was fabricated because he outlined couplings and sexual positions far too detailed for him to have actually witnessed in the low-light of a steam room in the surprising moment he burst into the bathhouse with a team of police. During an interview with the prosecutor, Hashad testified that he saw the scene clearly enough, according to a transcript included in the case file obtained by BuzzFeed News.
"I saw a bunch of people, homos [shawaz], naked and all of them engaged in debauchery," he summarized for the prosecutor, according to an interview transcript. "Immediately I went with my men to arrest of bunch of gays."
Of the nine men Hashad said he saw having sex in the steam room, he saw one man being penetrated while lying on a massage table with his legs in the air; another was "jumping" on another's penis while he lay prone on the floor. Another couple was having oral sex. There was a threesome, he said.
But defense lawyer Rousdy Abo-Seada told BuzzFeed News that Hashad's account was too perfect to be true; it sounded more like he had constructed the account after the fact and matched individuals up in order to add up to the number he needed.
"Hashad was trying to make this a sex scene and he invented all that," Abo-Seada said. "Then he discovered that he had an odd number — this was a way to solve his problem."
For each grouping, Hashad also specified how much each had paid or were getting paid for the encounter, laying the groundwork for charges of prostitution against some of the men involved and the employees of the bathhouse. The amounts ranged from around 100 to 300 Egyptian pounds — about $15 to $40. That could be equal to half a month's rent for some of these men, who come from an unusually broad range of backgrounds for a bathhouse in the poor neighborhood where this one was located. They ranged from a window washer to owners of businesses in rich parts of town far away from the bathhouse.
The police records also appear to contradict the account of the journalist who publicized the arrest, Iraqi, who said that she tipped police off to the sexual activities taking place inside the bathhouse and waited several days before broadcasting her program "to give security institutions a chance to close down the baths." Iraqi has faced a stiff backlash from other journalists, who say she crossed ethical boundaries in colluding with police and showing the faces of the men who were accused.
Instead, Hashad said police had moved on the baths after gathering "secret information" from "secret monitoring" of the establishment, implying Iraqi was not his source. The head of the morals police, Gen. Magdy Mousa, told BuzzFeed News that Hashad had been investigating the baths for some time and he believed Hashad tipped off Iraqi to the allegations against the bathhouse.
"The officer and his team were preparing for this case for a while," Mousa said. "She might be his friend so they have a good [relationship]. That's why he told her … [It] is a mistake to allow journalists — men or women — to be there [for an arrest]."
The prosecutor filed an appeal to the acquittal on Monday afternoon, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, whose lawyers are representing 14 of the defendants. The attorneys are currently working to secure the defendants' release while the appeal is pending.
A previous version of this story misspelled the name of the defense lawyer Mohamed Abo Zakry.