CAIRO: Recent arrests and trials in Egypt of HIV-positive men endanger human rights, an international watchdog said Wednesday and called on authorities here to release those in custody and stop criminalizing AIDS.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch also urged Egypt to overturn the convictions of four men sentenced for habitual practice of debauchery – a term used in the Egyptian legal system for consensual homosexual acts – and to free four others held pending charges.
These shocking arrests and trials embody both ignorance and injustice, said Scott Long, head of a gay rights program at HRW. Egypt threatens not just its international reputation but its own population if it responds to the HIV/AIDS epidemic with prison terms instead of prevention and care.
Rights groups and the international community have repeatedly condemned Egypt for trying homosexuals.
Homosexuality is not explicitly referred to in the Egyptian legal code, but a wide range of laws covering obscenity, prostitution and debauchery are applied to homosexuals. In the largest case to date here, state security arrested 52 homosexuals on a floating restaurant on the Nile River in 2001.
Twenty-three were sentenced to two years in prison, two got three and five years while the rest were acquitted.
In its report, HRW highlighted recent arrests in the Egyptian capital, sparked by one man s admission he was HIV-positive. Authorities have not commented on the cases.
The arrests began last October, HRW said, when police stopped two men arguing on a downtown Cairo street. After one of them told the officers he was HIV-positive, police detained both and opened an investigation against them for homosexual conduct. The two later told human rights activists they were beaten after refusing to sign already written confessions, held handcuffed to an iron desk for four days and subjected to forensic examination to prove they engaged in homosexual conduct, HRW said.
Police soon arrested two more men whose photographs and telephone numbers were found on the first two detainees. All four remain in custody pending a prosecutor s decision whether to raise charges. All were subjected to HIV tests without their consent, HRW said. The first two, reportedly both HIV-positive, are now held in a Cairo hospital, handcuffed to their beds, HRW added.
Then, in November, police arrested four more men found living in the apartment of one of the first four detainees. These second four were charged with homosexual conduct and also tested for HIV without consent, HRW said. One of the four reportedly said that the prosecutor, when informing him he had tested HIV positive, told him: People like you should be burnt alive. You do not deserve to live.
These four were convicted in mid-January for habitual practice of debauchery and sentenced to one-year prison terms, a sentence upheld Feb. 2 by an appeals court. Their lawyers told HRW that the prosecution produced no evidence against the defendants, who pleaded not guilty. One of the four convicted is also held in a Cairo hospital, chained to his bed, HRW said.
The cases reflect that Egyptian police act on a belief that AIDS is a crime that should be punished, Long said, adding that HIV tests forcibly taken without consent, ill-treatment in detention, trials driven by prejudice, and convictions without evidence all violate international law.