CAIRO — The trial of 26 men arrested in a raid on an Egyptian bathhouse began Sunday, the most recent example of what state officials say are cases of "debauchery," but which activists say are part of a crackdown against the LGBT community.
Egyptian prosecutors claim the 26 men were engaged in sex acts when they were arrested in a traditional Egyptian bathhouse, or hammam, in Cairo on Dec. 8. The men were paraded naked in front of waiting television cameras following the arrest, where one Egyptian journalist gleefully announced she had found a "den of group perversion."
On Sunday, that video footage was viewed by Judge Ihab Aziz as evidence. The men's medical records, including intrusive tests conducted while the men were in police custody, were also viewed by the court.
"It is a spectacle," said Egyptian activist May Wasan, who knows one of the men being charged through a family acquaintance. "They are trying to make a show and treat these men like they are not human."
Tarek Awady, one of the lawyers for the defense, said that the case was part of a wider effort by Egyptian authorities to publicize their efforts to crackdown on the LGBT community.
"This case was created by Egyptian authorities to get people talking," Awady said. "It was made to divert our attention to something else so that we don't focus on the real problems in Egypt."
While Egypt has no explicit laws against homosexuality, the last year has seen a steady increase in the arrests of men tried with "perversion" and "debauchery," thinly veiled terms used by Egyptian authorities to describe men engaged in homosexual acts. The cases have ranged from several men arrested in a Cairo apartment to dozens of men apprehended in tea houses and apartments in raids led by Egyptian police. Activists say the crackdown is part of a coordinated campaign led by the regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and spurred by pro-state media outlets looking to sensationalize the story.
"What's clear is that another pro-Sisi media organ is working in close collusion with security forces, to produce a sensational show about sex with appalling and terrifying images, to invade privacy and engorge the prisons and destroy innocent people's lives," wrote Scott Long, the founding director of Human Rights Watch's LGBT program, on his blog Paper Bird.
The move is also seen by activists part of an effort by the Sisi regime to quiet taunts by the Muslim Brotherhood that a non-Islamist government can't be a conservative, moral authority in Egypt.
Lawyers for the defense say the police forged documents on the bathhouse raid, and that many of the men were fully clothed at the time of their arrests but had been forced to strip naked for the sake of the cameras. The lawyers also charge that the mens' rights had been violated by the television crew, which had no legal ground to film the arrest and violate the defendants' privacy.
"The police forced my defendant to take off his clothes in the bath," said Khaled el Nakash, one of the lawyers for the defense. "He had been wearing a full set of clothing."
He and other lawyers told BuzzFeed News that intrusive medical tests conducted by police on the defendants found that 23 of the men were "virgins" while three of the men had "wounds," a term used by Egyptian authorities to suggest the men had taken part in sex acts.
Friends and families of the defendants were not allowed in the court, but said the medical tests proved the men were not gay but had been framed by police.
"Our children are clean, the reports prove that," said the mother of one of the defendants, who asked not to be named to protect the identity of her family. "The media, they destroyed our lives. I walk on the street with my head cast down towards the ground. I just thank god that the medical reports show my son is clean."
Much of the anger from the family and friends was directed towards Mona Iraqi, the Egyptian reporter who allegedly tipped off police about the bathhouse, and whose camera crew filmed the naked men.
Iraqi, who works for the pro-government al-Qahira wal Nas news channel, has come under fire for the report in recent weeks by fellow Egyptian journalists who claim that she invaded the men's privacy and went too far in her accusations.
Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F
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