An international human-rights group says the arrests and trials of eight men suspected of being homosexual in Egypt threaten both public health and human rights. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Cairo.
Human Rights Watch says the first two men were arrested in October when Cairo police intervened in a street argument. One of the men told police he was HIV-positive. Officers immediately arrested both men and took them to the Morality Police, which began investigating them for homosexual activity, which is not officially a crime in Egypt.
The rights group says the men were handcuffed to a metal desk for four days, beaten and subjected to an intrusive medical examination that amounted to torture.
Two more men were arrested because their photographs or phone numbers were found in the possession of the first two. All four are still in custody. The first two, the rights group says, are handcuffed to their hospital beds 23 hours a day.
Human Rights Watch says four more men were arrested in November, after police raided an apartment where one of the earlier detainees had previously lived. The arrest report indicates they were not doing anything illegal when they were arrested, but they were convicted of "debauchery" in January simply because they were in a home where one of the other detainees used to live. An appeals court recently upheld their convictions.
Gasser Abdel-Razek is the Human Rights Watch acting director of regional relations.
"These prosecutions reflect the way Egypt as a state sees homosexuality, because in the minds of people HIV/AIDS has to be the outcome of something immoral, therefore those people should be prosecuted," he said. "[In] one of the testimonies, the prosecutor basically told one of the defendants that they should be burned alive."
All eight of the men were subjected to HIV tests without their consent, which is a violation of international human-rights standards.
Many civic groups in Egypt are trying to fight the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS here, and to provide care and treatment for those affected or at risk. Human Rights Watch says those efforts will be undermined if the police continue to imprison people on the basis of their HIV status.
"If the state continues to prosecute people who are diagnosed with HIV AIDS, not just to prosecute, but not to provide a safe environment for those people to receive proper medical care without any fear of confinement, arrest or prosecution - people will not come forward and the fact is, these cases will continue to grow outside the control of the state, outside the official statistics, and basically HIV/AIDS will increase in this country," he added.
There have been waves of arrests of gay men in the past, most notably in 2001, when 52 men were arrested aboard a floating nightclub known as the Queen Boat.
Human Rights Watch says homosexuality is not officially illegal in Egypt, but the authorities have typically used anti-prostitution laws to prosecute gay people.
Human Rights Watch is calling for authorities to release the eight men and change the system.
"But more importantly, to create a system that educates people about HIV-AIDS, including public officials, either health care workers or those in the law enforcement system, and provide a safe place for those people to come forward, get treated and feel safe for their life and freedom, and get treated like patients that need help, not people that have committed a crime," he explained.
The arrest of the HIV-positive men on charges of debauchery appears to be based on the mistaken belief that homosexuality is synonymous with AIDS.
But Egypt's National AIDS Program said in 2004 that less than a quarter of reported HIV cases during the previous 14 years were traced to homosexual activity. Elsewhere, UNAIDS says heterosexual conduct is the main method of HIV transmission in Sudan, which has the highest rates of HIV infection in the Middle East and North Africa.
Using contaminated drug-injection equipment is the main risk factor in several other countries in the region, including Libya, Iran and Tunisia.
In Egypt, the U.N. estimates that there are more than 5,000 people living with HIV and AIDS. Most of the people who have tested positive are men, but the U.N. says that is because far more men than women are tested for the virus, mainly when they are applying for work visas to Gulf countries, which screen migrant workers for hepatitis and HIV.