Egypt acquits 26 allegedly gay men arrested in bathhouse

By Maggie Michael , AP

CAIRO–An Egyptian court on Monday acquitted 26 men arrested in a televised raid last month by police looking for gays at a Cairo public bathhouse, a ruling that set off deafening cheers and jubilation inside the courtroom as some of the defendants uncovered their faces and wept openly in relief.

Others, however, kept their faces hidden behind jacket hoods and scarves, still traumatized by the humiliation they and their families had endured during the highly publicized case, which caught the public’s attention after a pro-government TV network aired scenes of half-naked men being pulled from the bathhouse by police during the Dec. 7 raid.

Monday’s ruling was a climax in Egypt’s ongoing crackdown on the gay community, and also recently on atheists �X a crackdown that goes hand in hand with a wider campaign against all forms of dissent and diversity in a country gripped by rising nationalism and a militant insurgency.

Same-sex relations are not explicitly prohibited under Egyptian law but homosexuality is a social taboo in the conservative, Muslim-majority country and same-sex marriage is unheard of.

��They destroyed our lives. God rescued us,�� said one of the defendants, who would not give his name to protect his privacy, as he broke into tears after the verdict.

Scenes of half-naked men being dragged from the bathhouse after police descended on the hammam in a narrow alley of an old downtown Cairo district caused an uproar among activists and rights groups.

Activists, defendants and their families were doubly outraged by the deep involvement in the case of Egyptian TV presenter Mona al-Iraqi, who claimed she actually triggered the raid by tipping off the police about alleged gay activity in the bathhouse �X which she described as a ��den of mass perversion spreading AIDS in Egypt.��

Monday’s verdict came after only four hearings.

Because there are no laws criminalizing homosexuality in Egypt, a decades’ old law criminalizing prostitution is often used in penalizing the gay community. The trial opened only two weeks after the raid on the bathhouse �X an usually quick referral by the general prosecutor.

Five of the defendants �X the owner of the bathhouse and four staff members �X were tried for facilitating debauchery in exchange for money.

The rest of the defendants were charged with practicing debauchery and ��indecent public acts.��

Hossam, the lawyer, also criticized the police for subjecting the defendants to an ��inhuman�� forensic investigation that produced a ��vague and incomplete�� report that cited ��scratches�� as indication of possible homosexual activity.

��These men lost everything,�� said Hossam, who represented 14 of the defendants. ��Even with acquittal, this conservative, regressive society will continue to scorn them. Their lives and their families have been shattered.��