The first session of the trial of 26 men arrested for homosexuality on Sunday, held in the Galaa Courthouse in Azbakiya, Cairo, ended in postponement, amid chaotic courtroom scenes.
The case came to court only two weeks following the high profile arrest of the defendants, but the trial has been postponed until 4 January, while the men remain in custody.
In the first week of December, media personality Mona Iraqi and a film crew accompanied a police unit’s raid on a suspected “gay bathhouse orgy”. Men were filmed almost naked as they were led out of the bathhouse, covering their faces to the cameras. The apprehended are expected to be face charges of practicing, facilitating and inciting “debauchery”.
Homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, although men accused of it often face charges of debauchery or public indecency.
Families were briefly allowed into the courtroom, before being ejected, according to AFP reporter Haitham Tabei Tabi, whilst some journalists were allowed to remain.
Those attending described a highly intense atmosphere, with families of the accused crying and screaming; primarily mothers and women with children. Many families argued with journalists who attempted to photograph men in the dock.
Scott Long, a human rights campaigner, reported one mother shouting to her son in the cage: “Remember you’re a man! Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid of anyone except God!”
The men, predominately in their forties and fifties, tried to hide their faces and at least three men were crying and proclaiming their innocence. Another maintained he was in the bathhouse for back pain. “The police beat us every day and force us to sleep on our stomachs,” one said, according to Tabi.
Mohamed Zakaria Al-Tobgy, the bathhouse owner’s defence lawyer, told AFP that it has been a registered establishment for over 100 years, but the media has spun the story into one of homosexual conduct.
According to Long and an accompanying rights NGO worker, lawyers still have not been granted access to the prosecutors’ or police’s reports, and are uncertain of the exact charges. However, it is expected that charges of “debauchery” will be levelled, with sentences possibly ranging up to nine years in prison for defendants accused of facilitating and profiting from the activities.
There was brief confusion following the case and into Sunday evening, as incorrect reports circulated that the defendants had been released.
According to Long, defence lawyers announced to crowds in the court house that they had submitted a request to the judge to allow defendants out of custody. However, in the confusion this was misinterpreted as news that the judge had granted their release. The news spread via Twitter and was also picked up by certain media outlets, before being verified.
During their detention, it is believed that 21 of the detainees have been subject to intrusive ‘forensic anal examinations’ to investigate whether they have been sexually assaulted, according to state-run newspaper Al-Ahram. The procedure is based on allegedly unsound medical grounds, and Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said it “violates international standards against torture”. However, Long claimed that the hearing did not mention sexual assault charges for any of the defendants, so it is unclear why the men were subject to the tests.
A report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) on Saturday claims that since the ouster of former president Mohammed Morsi 18 months ago, at least 150 individuals have been arrested on charges of debauchery. Gay rights activists have stated that the atmosphere towards homosexuality is worse now than under the Muslim Brotherhood rule of 2012-13.
A 2013 opinion poll carried out by the Pew Research Center holds that 95% of Egyptians believe that homosexuality is unacceptable to society.