Human Rights Watch described the acquittal of 26 men accused of debauchery and indecent public acts in the “Ramses bathhouse” case as a “rare success in protecting the rights to privacy and nondiscrimination,” but called on the prosecutor to withdraw its appeal.
On Monday, the Azbakeya Misdemeanors Court acquitted 26 defendants who were arrested in a bathhouse in downtown Cairo’s Ramses area in an unexpected verdict. Later that day however, the Azbakeya Prosecution appealed the verdict, Al-Ahram reported.
Boris Dittrich, HRW’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocacy director, said in a statement that while the case is a “rare victory” for human rights, the prosecutor shouldn’t have leveled these charges in the first place.
He also called on the prosecutor to “promptly withdraw its appeal.”
The arrests were made on December 8 at the behest of television host Mona al-Iraqi, who filmed the ensuing security raid.
Iraqi, a presenter on “Al-Mestakhabi” (The Hidden), an investigative journalism show that broadcasts on the privately owned channel Al-Qahera wal Nas, wrote on her Facebook page that she and her team had been investigating the bathhouse, alleging it was a “den of illegal gay sex workers.”
HRW said “the deliberate, public humiliation of these men” was a violation of their right to privacy.
The prosecution had presented forensic reports based on physical examinations of the defendants in an attempt to prove that the men have engaged in homosexual activity. HRW said these examinations violate international standards against torture and inhuman and degrading treatment.
The LGBT community in Egypt has long faced harsh oppression by both society and the state under former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, which has not been mitigated by the successive administrations that followed his ouster.
The Egyptian Penal Code has no explicit laws against homosexuality, but crackdowns on gay Egyptians have been carried out under the pretext of various vague laws such as “violating the teachings of religion” and “moral depravity.”
In its statement, Dittrich called on Egyptian authorities to immediately stop detaining men suspected of homosexual conduct under charges of “debauchery.”
“The criminal justice authorities should follow the court’s lead and release the dozens more who remain imprisoned under this repressive law,” he concluded.
In another statement on Tuesday, HRW condemned the recent sentencing of a university student to three years in prison for “contempt of religion.”
The student, Karim al-Banna, was accused of insulting Islam after he made a series of Facebook posts about his atheist beliefs. HRW condemned the verdict and stated that it was part of a larger crackdown against atheists in Egypt.
They stated that Banna’s conviction is part of “a wider government push to combat atheism and other forms of dissent.”
Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa director, told Mada Masr that HRW believes the crackdown on atheists has increased because of “the number of cases that have been documented over the past year; there were very few such cases that we documented under the Morsi and Mubarak administrations.”
The statement cited the recent police raid of an alleged “atheist café” in downtown Cairo on December 14.
The report also cited a recently issued survey by Egypt’s grand mufti alleging to document the number of atheists in Egypt. According to the survey, there are 866 atheists in Egypt. The advisor to the grand mufti stated that this number “should ring alarm bells” across Egypt.
HRW stated that legally Egypt must protect the rights of atheists, as the Constitution states that, “freedom of belief is absolute.”
Furthermore, Egypt is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, both of which require that government to respect freedom of belief and freedom of expression, without discrimination.
However, the Egyptian Penal Code criminalizes insulting Abrahamic religions and Article 98(f) specifically forbids the propagation of atheism in words, writing or other means. The crime bears a sentence of up to five years in prison and/or fines of up to LE1,000.
“Atheists are one of Egypt’s least protected minorities, although the Constitution ostensibly guarantees freedom of belief and expression. Egyptian authorities need to be guided by the constitution and stop persecuting people for atheism,” said Whitson in the statement.
The HRW statement also documented the way that blasphemy laws are used to target other individuals. They pointed out that in June courts in the Upper Egypt Luxor governorate sentenced four Coptic Christians to up to six years in prison.
In her statement to Mada Masr, Whitson said that, “blasphemy laws are used not only against atheists, but against others whose views prosecutors have considered as ‘insulting’ to Islam or blasphemous.”