What the decision to test all detainees at a police station for HIV reveals about Egypt’s security services
Courtesy: MENA

It is not quite clear what the sister of a man arrested on suspicion of being gay expected when she told the police authorities that her brother was HIV positive. But the response to this apparently confidential piece of information was to place him in solitary confinement alongside two other detainees held on the same case, subjecting them to forced anal examinations and making the other 170 detainees at the station undergo mandatory HIV tests.


Last week local press reported that three detainees at Haram Police Station were placed in solitary confinement to prevent them from “practicing homosexuality” with the other detainees and possibly infecting them with HIV. They were also made to undergo forced anal examinations to determine “how they had acquired HIV.”


The woman’s brother, along with two other men, had been arrested on suspicion of being gay and the three were being detained at the station ahead of trial. It is not clear on what charges they are being held, but the majority of people are arrested because they are presumed to be LGBT face charges of debauchery or perversion.


Privately owned Al-Wafd newspaper reported that Haram prosecution called on the Health Ministry to release the detainees’ HIV test results. The detainees had reportedly denied “practicing homosexuality” with the three men.


While reports and accounts of detainees or prisoners presumed to be gay often detail forced anal examinations and other forms of sexual assault, rights activists note that this case is revealing of state authorities’ mentality.


The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) reported LGBT individuals are often targets of state-sponsored sexual violence in Egypt, especially in prisons, in May 2015. Katherine Booth, the director of the women’s rights office at FIDH, previously told Mada Masr that security forces subject them to sexual violence as a method of punishment, humiliation and control.


The response to an HIV disclosure on the part of police authorities offers insight into the violence faced by detainees who are LGBT — or who are presumed to be — as well as a state-sponsored moral panic around homosexuality and institutional ignorance about the nature of HIV.



State-sanctioned sexual violence against LGBT detainees


This case shows a tacit acknowledgment by prison authorities of sexual violence in detention, says Dalia Abdel Hameed, gender officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).


The fact that authorities state they expect HIV to be transmitted through sexual encounters with LGBT individuals, she explains, points to both how vulnerable they are in prison and how little protection they are given by prison authorities.

Scott Long, a gender and sex rights activist and the author of the Paper Bird blog, says that authorities often encourage sexual violence of LGBT detainees.


“LGBT people, particularly ones who look different from the gender assigned at birth, face sexual violence throughout the prison system,” he says. “Guards and officials know about this, in some cases they encourage it, handing over prisoners for abuse or rape.


“At best, guards are indifferent to what happens inside cells, preferring to leave the regulation of those spaces to the prisoners’ own hierarchies,” he adds.


By way of example, Long says, guards deliberately encouraged the sexual abuse of detainees charged with debauchery and indecent public acts in the infamous Ramses bathhouse case when 26 men were arrested in a police raid by journalist Mona Iraqi who alleged on her Facebook page that the bathhouse was a den of “illegal gay sex workers.”

While being gay is not technically illegal under Penal Code, security services have conducted an ongoing campaign against LGBT people who are usually charged with debauchery and violating public morals.

The defendants in the bathhouse case were acquitted, but their lawyer told Mada Masr that the forensics had performed anal examinations on the defendants, a practice which has been condemned by human rights organizations as having no forensic value and a violation of international standards against torture.


The abuse by authorities comes feeds into and is part of a broader societal homophobia. After the defendants in the Ramses bathhouse case were acquitted they faced social stigmatization to such an extent that one of the defendants attempted to commit suicide.


In Haram police station, the three detainees not only subjected to sexual violence including forced anal examinations but were also put in solitary confinement. The idea that the detainees would be protected by being placed in solitary confinement questioned by both Abdel Hameed and Long who point to its punitive nature.


Long describes solitary confinement as itself a form of violence, stating that protecting prisoners from sexual violence should not come at the cost of their personal rights, pointing to UN condemnation of its use as a way to “protect” prisoners.


It is clear, Abdel Hameed says, that the authorities are less concerned with any protection of the detainees than they are afraid of the spread of HIV, though the move to test everyone indicates deep institutional ignorance about the virus and its transmission.


Ignorance about HIV and gay moral panic


The HIV virus has an incubation period making the tests “basically meaningless from a health standpoint,” Abdel Hameed says.


Long suggests that the case presents a “devastating picture” of the ignorance of the police authorities.


“When it comes to HIV,” he says, “they rely on magical thinking and mythology as in this case, rather than taking actual measures to prevent the violence. These tests are about as effective as giving them kofta, which the regime also thinks is a cure.”


Both Abdel Hameed and Long, longtime observers of gender and sexuality based violations, note that apart from the inefficacy of the tests, involuntary testing is also a human rights violation.


Not only is the authorities’ understanding of HIV not very scientific, but deeply entwined with homophobia, they say.


“There’s no evidence that this kind of fake ‘precaution’ happens when, say, an intravenous drug user is imprisoned,” Long says. “The authorities think of HIV as a product sex between men. They’re grossly ignorant of other modes of transmission, including heterosexual sex.”


The UNFPA estimates that 60 percent of HIV cases in Egypt are transmitted by unprotected sexual intercourse between heterosexual couples, while 27 percent of cases are transmitted by intercourse between two men.


The targeting of LGBT individuals has been described as an effort on the part of the state to assert its moral authority, with sexual minorities easy scapegoats for public moral panic.


Abdel Hameed says part of the problem with the Haram Police Station case is its association of being gay and HIV.


“That association is really dangerous,” she says, “It feeds the panic they want to create around homosexuality.”


You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism