Beirut — Arbitrary Arrests, Discrimination, Entrapment, Privacy Violations
Egyptian police and National Security Agency officers arbitrarily arrest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and detain them in inhuman conditions, systematically subject them to ill-treatment including torture, and often incite fellow inmates to abuse them, Human Rights Watch said today. Security forces routinely pick people off the streets based solely on their gender expression, entrap them through social networking sites and dating applications, and unlawfully search their phones. Prosecutors use this content to justify prolonged detentions as they rubber-stamp police reports and bring unjustified prosecutions against them.
Human Rights Watch documented cases of torture, including severe and repeated beatings and sexual violence, in police custody, often under the guise of forced anal exams or "virginity tests." Police and prosecutors also inflicted verbal abuse, extracted forced confessions, and denied detainees access to legal counsel and medical care. These detailed accounts, including from a 17-year-old girl, unavailable elsewhere, were provided against the backdrop of increased prosecutions for alleged same-sex conduct during the anti-LGBT crackdown that started after a 2017 Mashrou' Leila concert in Cairo.
Sarah Hegazy, who was detained in 2017 after she raised a rainbow flag at the concert, said police tortured her and incited fellow detainees to beat and sexually harass her. She took her own life in June 2020, in exile in Canada. The cases documented in this report, as recent as August 2020, demonstrate that her mistreatment is part of a larger and systematic pattern of abuse against LGBT people in Egypt.
"Egyptian authorities seem to be competing for the worst record on rights violations against LGBT people in the region, while the international silence is appalling," said Rasha Younes, LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Sarah Hegazy's tragic death may have ignited waves of shock and solidarity worldwide, but Egypt has unabashedly continued to target and abuse LGBT people simply for who they are."
In late August, Egyptian security forces, likely from the National Security Agency, arrested two men who witnessed a high-profile gang rape in Cairo's Fairmont Nile City Hotel in 2014 and were to give evidence about the case. Officers unlawfully searched the men's phones while holding them incommunicado at al-Tagamoa First Police Station, east of Cairo, for several days, and used photos they found to allege that they had engaged in same-sex conduct, to keep them in custody. Judges renewed their detention several times, and prosecutors subjected them to forced anal examinations, a practice which Egyptian authorities routinely carry out to seek "proof" of same-sex conduct, despite it being denounced as abusive and in violation of international law. The two men could face charges under Egypt's "debauchery" laws.
Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government, authorities have long waged a campaign of arrests and prosecutions against those whose perceived or actual sexual orientation and gender identity does not conform to heteronormative values and the gender binary. Human rights groups have documented wide-scale abuses in the wake of a September 2017 concert by the Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila, whose lead singer is openly gay and which performs songs that support sexual and gender diversity. At the concert, activists, including Hegazy and Ahmed Alaa, raised a rainbow flag, a symbol of LGBT pride. Several LGBT Egyptians said that after the August arrests in the Fairmont case, they feared the crackdown would only intensify, and several had fled the country.
Human Rights Watch, assisted by a Cairo-based LGBT rights organization whose name is withheld for security reasons, interviewed 15 people, including LGBT people prosecuted between 2017 and 2020 under vague and discriminatory "debauchery" and "prostitution" laws, as well as two lawyers who represented the victims in these cases and two LGBT rights activists. The victims include a 17-year-old girl.
All of those interviewed said police verbally harassed and subjected them to physical abuse ranging from slapping to being water-hosed and tied up for days, and nine said police officers incited other detainees to abuse them. Eight were victims of sexual violence, and four said they were denied medical care. Eight said that police forced them to sign confessions. All victims were held in pretrial detention for prolonged periods, in one case up to four months, often without access to legal counsel.
One man said that upon his arrest in Ramses, Cairo in 2019, police officers beat him senseless, then made him stand for three days in a dark and unventilated room with his hands and feet tied with a rope: "They didn't let me go to the bathroom. I had to wet my clothes and even shit in them. I still had no idea why I was arrested."
A woman said that after being arbitrarily detained at a protest in Cairo in 2018, police officers subjected her to three "virginity" tests at different times in detention: "A woman officer grabbed and squeezed my breasts, grabbed my vagina and looked inside it, opened my anus and inserted her hand inside so deep that I felt she pulled something out of me. I bled for three days and could not walk for weeks. I couldn't go to the bathroom, and I developed medical conditions that I still suffer from today."
Police forced three men, a transgender girl, and a transgender woman to undergo anal examinations. In one case, after a man presented his disability card to the police, officers inserted the card up his anus.
One activist remarked on the impunity with which security forces perpetuate abuses against LGBT people: "Police are individuals. Each of them has an idea of torture that he carries out with impunity. The only difference in torture and assault techniques are due to their personal preferences."
Malak el-Kashif, 20, a transgender woman and human rights activist, was arbitrarily detained for four months, sexually harassed, and abused in a male prison in 2019. An administrative court in May 2020 dismissed the appeal her lawyer filed requesting the Interior Ministry to provide separate detention facilities for transgender detainees in accordance with their gender identity.
The conditions of detention for transgender people can be detrimental to their physical and mental health. Human Rights Watch has previously documented that trans women detainees are likely to face sexual assault and other forms of ill-treatment when placed in men's cells.
Egypt has repeatedly rejected recommendations by several countries to end arrests and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Most recently, at the United Nations Human Rights Council in March, Egypt refused to recognize the existence of LGBT people, flouting its obligation to protect the rights of all within its jurisdiction without discrimination.
Egyptian security forces should end arrests and prosecutions for adult, consensual sexual relations, including same-sex conduct, or based on gender expression, and immediately release LGBT people who remain arbitrarily detained, Human Rights Watch said. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi should order his government to put an end to security forces' practices of torture and other ill-treatment, including by banning the use of "virginity tests" and forced anal exams.
Egypt should extend an open invitation to UN human rights experts to scrutinize its protections against torture and other forms of abuse, and fully cooperate with their missions.
Wherever transgender people are detained, authorities should ensure that they can choose to be housed in a facility in accordance with their gender identity or in a segregated housing unit reserved exclusively for transgender people. Under no circumstances should transgender people be held in solitary confinement for lack of alternatives, Human Rights Watch said.
"Morality and public order are hijacked, not preserved, when security forces arbitrarily arrest people and subject them to life-altering abuse in detention," Younes said. "Egypt's partners should halt support to its abusive security forces until the country takes effective steps to end this cycle of abuse, so that LGBT people can live freely in their country."
Abuse, Torture, Sexual Violence in Police Custody
The nature of the arrests and prosecutions documented by Human Rights Watch, and Egypt's official statements denying LGBT rights, suggest a coordinated policy - at the very least acquiesced to, if not directed by senior government officials - to persecute LGBT people. As a police officer told a man arrested in early 2019, his arrest was part of an operation to "clean the streets of faggots." These accounts of torture and abuse present further evidence of the deeply rooted, pervasive use of torture by the Interior Ministry and the level of impunity afforded to its officers. In a 2017 report, Human Rights Watch found that widespread and systematic torture crimes in Egypt probably amount to crimes against humanity.
In reviewing judicial files for 13 cases of people prosecuted under "debauchery" and "prostitution" laws between 2017 and 2020, Human Rights Watch found that Egyptian authorities had arbitrarily arrested seven men by entrapping them on dating apps (Grindr) and social media (Facebook and WhatsApp). Police randomly picked up five men because of what the authorities described as "feminine and gay gestures" and one transgender woman due to her "abnormal appearance."
Authorities held 11 men in pretrial detention pending investigation, in some cases for months, then sentenced them to prison terms ranging from three months to six years. Appellate courts dismissed charges against eight of the men and reversed their convictions and upheld the convictions of two men but reduced their sentences. In one case, a man spent a year in prison, having been convicted of "debauchery" because he was unable to afford legal counsel to appeal his conviction.
One woman was subjected to three "virginity tests" during her detention and the authorities forced three men, a transgender girl, and a transgender woman to undergo anal examinations. "Virginity" and anal tests constitute cruel, degrading, and inhuman treatment that can rise to the level of torture and sexual assault under international human rights law. They violate medical ethics, are internationally discredited, and lack scientific validity to "prove" same-sex conduct or "virginity." The Egyptian Medical Syndicate has taken no steps to prevent doctors from conducting these degrading and abusive exams.
In the following accounts, some of the victims are identified with pseudonyms for their protection, indicated by use of quotation marks around the name in the case headings.
In September 2019, Yasser said, he met another man in Giza Center City after chatting with him on Grindr, a same-sex dating application. Police officers approached them, accused them of "selling alcohol," and arrested them:
The next day, Yasser said, police officers took him to the prosecutor's office in Dokki, a district in Giza City. The prosecutor told him, "You're the cheap faggot they caught, son of a disgusting whore, do you fuck or get fucked?" He then renewed Yasser's detention for four days:
After a week, Yasser said, police officers took him to Giza Central Prison, inside the Giza Central Security Forces Camp:
On September 30, Yasser had his first court hearing at Dokki Misdemeanor Court in Giza. The judge acquitted him:
Salim was arbitrarily detained twice. In early 2019, Salim said, he was meeting a friend at night in Ramses, Cairo, when police officers approached him and demanded to see his ID. Police told Salim they were "cleaning the streets of faggots," and proceeded to beat him "with all their might," then handcuffed him and threw him in a police vehicle, he said. They took him to Azbakeya Police Station, and confiscated his phone, money, and personal belongings:
After the third day, Salim said, a police officer took him to another room and made him sign a piece of paper without reading it. When he asked what he was signing, the officer threatened him with rape and said: "If you want to leave, sign the papers." After he signed, Salim said officers threw him in a crowded cell. The next day, the same officers took him to the Azbakeya prosecutor's office. They said, "If you say anything about what happened, you will never see the sun again."
A month later, Salim was randomly arrested again on the street, searched, and detained overnight.
In December 2019, a judge of the Abbasiya Court acquitted him of charges of "debauchery," which had been brought against him when he was arrested for the second time.
Malak el-Kashif, 20
On March 6, 2019, security forces arrested Malak el-Kashif, a political activist and transgender woman, six days after she participated in a protest in Cairo. She said police arrested her at her home in Cairo at 2 a.m., dragged her by her clothes on the street, and beat her. They took her to al-Haram Police Station:
State Security prosecutors ordered el-Kashif detained for 15 days pending an investigation on accusations of "misusing social media," a charge used widely in Egypt against peaceful dissidents:
She was then placed in solitary confinement in the Mazr'a Tora men's prison for 135 days:
The police denied her lawyers' requests to continue her hormone treatment and undergo further gender-affirming surgeries. She said that she had a metal rod in her left arm from a previous surgery, and that while detained, it got infected: "I was in excruciating pain, but they refused to provide medical treatment." El-Kashif concluded:
Hossam Ahmed, 27
Hossam Ahmed, a transgender man, was arrested in a café in Cairo on February 28, 2019 and detained in an undisclosed location for four days before being presented to prosecutors on March 4. He was charged with "joining a terrorist group and misusing social media to commit a crime punishable by law." Although a court ordered Ahmed released on September 15, 2020, he remained in pretrial detention for an additional week before he was eventually released on September 22.
Despite undergoing gender-affirming medical interventions, and his self-identification as a transgender man, Ahmed's ID card says "female." While he was detained in a women's prison in Abdeen, Cairo, he said, he was subjected to physical examinations and prohibited from continuing his hormonal treatment and gender-affirming surgery.
Human Rights Watch obtained a statement he wrote from prison February 21, 2020, through a France-based LGBT rights organization:
Aya, a queer activist, was arrested by security forces in May 2018 while she was protesting price inflation. She said:
Aya said she was taken to six police stations for interrogation and placed for a whole day in a metal mobile warehouse under scorching heat. "I could have died from suffocation," she said.
She was then detained in al-Qanater Women's Prison in Cairo. Police officers questioned her for 12 hours and repeatedly asked her if she was a virgin, she said. Authorities charged her with "joining a terrorist group aimed at interfering with the constitution" and detained her in a 3 by 2-meter cell with 45 other women. "The women had to beat and threaten each other to have space to sleep," she said.
Aya said she was subjected to three "virginity" tests:
After two months, a court ordered Aya released subject to two years' probation, during which she had to report to state security offices three days a week. At the offices during her court mandated check-ins, she was beaten, repeatedly sexually assaulted, humiliated, and harassed, she said:
In August 2018, Adham said he was waiting for his friend in Cairo when two men dressed in civilian clothing surrounded him:
Police officers found a screenshot of a conversation between Adham and a friend and recorded it in their notebook as what they called an "inappropriate sexual conversation." When he tried to explain, an officer grabbed him in a chokehold while the other officer severely beat him and addressed him with the "most horrific profanities," he said. They then dragged him and threw him into a bus:
Adham said police officers tried to force him to sign a statement he had not written that included admission of "immorality and incitement to debauchery," "sex trade," and "attempting to satisfy forbidden sexual desires with men in exchange for money." When he refused, several officers attacked him from behind and started punching, slapping, and stomping their boots all over his body. He said:
The next day, police officers took Adham to the prosecutor's office in Qasr El-Nil in downtown Cairo, where he was ordered released. However, the police did not comply, and took him back to Abdeen Police Station:
On September 23, 2018 a court in Cairo sentenced Adham to six months in prison and six months' probation for "debauchery." On appeal, a court dismissed the charges against him, though they remained on his criminal record until April 2019, preventing him from traveling or securing employment.
In April 2018, Alaa said he and his friend were approached by police when they were waiting at a bank in Cairo. Alaa presented his ID, and police officers ran a search and found that he had been arrested in 2007. Alaa said that the earlier arrest seemed random because police found no evidence against him, but that even so, a judge sentenced him to three years in prison on "debauchery" charges, which he ended up serving at the hospital in Wadi al-Natroun Prison 440, northwest of Cairo, after he told the prosecutor he was HIV-positive.
While detained in 2007, Alaa said, he received no HIV treatment until the last six months, when his case gained public attention and, even then, he was given expired medications. He said he still has to use a crutch because of injuries from being brutally beaten and serially raped by other detainees at the hospital.
In 2018, when police arrested Alaa again, he said, they did not say why, and at Bulaq Abu al-Ala Police Station, they beat him senseless and mocked his disability. He took out his disability card to show the officer, who told him to "shove it up his ass." "I thought he was joking," Alaa said, "but then he actually ordered another officer to insert the card in my ass, which he did. I was praying to God to take me away. I wanted to die. I wanted the ground to swallow me alive."
Alaa said the prosecutor refused to listen to his testimony and proceeded to verbally harass and threaten him with forced anal examinations. The prosecutor questioned him based on the police report, which Alaa said he signed under pressure. It stated that Alaa and his male friend, who was also arrested, "have sex with each other and were arguing in public over money related to their engagement in sex work."
The prosecution ordered Alaa and his friend to undergo a forced anal exam: "The forensic doctor forcibly inserted his fingers and another object into my anus. I was humiliated beyond words."
Alaa described being beaten, humiliated, and sexually assaulted by officers and detainees at the Bulaq Abu al-Ala Detention Center. He said: "The officer was imposing his authority as though he was a God punishing his servants."
The men were detained for 26 days, pending trial. In court, Alaa said, the judge told him: "You are ruining Egypt. Find someone else to raise your children, I swear I will keep you in prison until you're 36 years old and ruin your life." The judge sentenced Alaa and his friend to six years in prison and six additional years of probation.
The appeals judge reduced the sentences to six months in prison and six additional months of probation. The 2 men spent a total of 6 months and 26 days in prison:
Hamed was arbitrarily detained three times in 2014, 2015, and 2017.
In 2017, he was on the street with a friend in Cairo when officers demanded their IDs and their phones, he said. When police found out about the previous "debauchery" and "prostitution" charges against them, Hamed said, they beat them to force them to unlock their phones:
The next day, Hamed met with the prosecutor, who ordered a forensic doctor to subject him to a forced anal exam: "I was stripped. The forensic doctor inserted an object into my anus. It hurt so much that I couldn't stop screaming." Hamed said he lied and said he had AIDS so the officers would not touch him.
Hamed was held in pretrial detention in a prison in Nasr City, east of Cairo, for three months. He said police officers beat him every day, sexually assaulted, and constantly insulted him. At the trial, the court sentenced Hamed to six years in prison. An appeals court reduced his sentence to six months in prison, after which he was released, subject to six more months' probation:
Ahmed Alaa, 24
Alaa was arrested a few days after the Mashrou' Laila concert, on October 1, 2017, his 21st birthday, in the northern city of Damietta. Ten police officers dressed in civilian clothing attacked him on the street, beat him, and took his phone while he was waiting for a friend in a car. They did not identify themselves. "I thought it was a prank," he said. "I couldn't understand what they were after."
After the beating, some of the police forcibly took him to Damietta Prison, he said. In the police car, officers slapped him. They did not inform him of the reason for his arrest, and during the first interrogation by National Security officers at the prison, which lasted seven hours, he had no lawyer.
Alaa said they placed him in a "cage-like cell" overnight. He slept on a wooden plank, handcuffed, was not given food or water, and was escorted to the bathroom and not allowed to close the door.
He said during the police interrogation, the officer asked him: "Are you a faggot?" "Why did you do this to yourself?" "Have you read the Quran?" "Have you ever practiced anal sex?"
They also asked if he had raised a rainbow flag at the concert, to which he said yes, and stated that he supports everyone's rights to express themselves. The officer responded: "Democracy is a sin" and "You will be in prison for a very long time."
He was transferred to al-Qanater Men's Prison in Cairo where he was further interrogated by other police:
Four officers then watched him take his clothes off while directing homophobic slurs at him, he said. They placed him in solitary confinement, claiming that it was for his protection:
On the fifth day of his solitary confinement, the officers took him for another interrogation, this time with Hegazy, who was also detained for raising a rainbow flag at the same Mashrou' Leila concert, and facing the same charge - allegedly "joining a banned group aimed at interfering with the constitution" and "inciting debauchery:"
After the interrogation, Alaa said, an officer pinned him down while another one shaved his head. As he was taken back to the cell, prisoners told him, "If they let you outside, I will find you and rape you," and "I haven't touched anyone in five years and you will suck my long dick," he said. Alaa said one of the officers forced him to touch his genitals.
He was then transferred to the morality ward in another prison and placed in a cell with seven inmates. "We took turns sleeping. Four at a time would sleep, and three would stand, so we could fit," he said.
After three months of pretrial detention, on January 1, 2018, a judge ordered Alaa and Hegazy released on bail. Despite the order to release him, Alaa said, National Security agents detained him for an additional 10 days in an undisclosed location, without a legal basis, to "terrorize" him:
In 2017, while Murad was walking to his university in Alexandria at 10 a.m., a police officer, scrutinizing his appearance, said: "Do you want to give me your phone or come with me to the station?" Murad said that the officer then "searched my phone and found private photos of me dressed as a woman. He said: 'You're a faggot. Your parents didn't know how to discipline you, so I will show you what discipline looks like.'"
Murad said that police officers beat him, verbally abused him, and coerced him to confess that he had had sex with a man. They accused him of "imitating women" and addressed him with female pronouns derogatorily.
Murad was detained at Burj al-Arab Prison near Alexandria, in an overcrowded and unsanitary cell. "It was impossible to find space to sleep," he said. Prison guards beat him and threatened to kill him, and detainees gang raped him in his cell while security guards did nothing to protect him, he said.
A court sentenced Murad to one year in prison for "inciting debauchery":
In September 2017, when Hanan, a trans woman, was a 17-year-old girl, Egyptian security forces entrapped her through social media and arbitrarily arrested her in a Cairo restaurant, she said:
Hanan said police officers searched her phone, logged into Grindr through her Facebook account, and created a fake chat to upload pictures of her as a woman. She was not told of any charges against her. She said she was made to strip in front of officers at the police station, who examined her body and asked her private questions, such as: "Do you shave?" "How did you get breasts?" "Why do you have long hair?" "Why do you have a ticket to a Mashrou' Leila concert?"
After hours of verbal abuse, Hanan said, she stopped responding to questions. Then, officers began beating her:
At the prosecutor's office, Hanan was asked about the pictures on her phone. She denied that it was her, but the prosecutor said: "Even the pictures of you dressed as a man incriminate you. You either confess now or you will never leave," she said. "He was cursing me and screaming at me, but I refused to confess," she said. The prosecutor then said: "I will keep you detained for three days so you can think about it."
After three days, Hanan said, she was transferred to a cell with men:
"[Prosecutors] kept postponing my trial, first 15 days, then 2 months. I felt like I would never leave," Hanan said. Hanan was held in pretrial detention for a total of 2 months and 15 days.
A court sentenced her to another month in prison for "inciting debauchery." Despite being released for time served, the charge stayed on Hanan's record for three years:
Egypt's Legal Obligations
The abuses by Egyptian authorities against LGBT people documented here violate multiple fundamental rights, including their rights to privacy, bodily integrity and protection against inhuman and degrading treatment and torture, free movement, free expression, assembly and association, as well as their right to nondiscrimination and protection under the law.
The abuses violate not only Egypt's obligations under international treaties to which it is a party, but the rights guaranteed in Egypt's own constitution.
Egypt's constitution sets out a number of fundamental due process rights. It prohibits warrantless arrests unless the person is caught in the act of a crime, requires a lawyer to be present during interrogations, and guarantees suspects the rights to remain silent, to be informed in writing of the reason for their arrest within 12 hours, to be brought before a prosecutor within 24 hours, and to contact a lawyer and family member.
The constitution prohibits torture, intimidation, coercion, and "physical or moral harming" of detainees and specifies that there is no statute of limitations on the crime of torture. It provides that a court should disregard any statement made under torture or threat of torture.
Egypt is a party to several international human rights treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), and the African Charter on Human and People's Rights. All these treaties strictly and absolutely prohibit torture, which includes a prohibition on the use of evidence obtained under torture. The ICCPR and the African Charter also set out fundamental due process rights for any person detained or facing criminal charges, similar to those in the constitution.
Under international human rights law, Egyptian authorities are required to protect women against all forms of violence, and have specific treaty obligations in this regard as a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Egypt's constitution also requires protecting women from violence.
The Yogyakarta Principles on the application of international human rights law in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity include the obligation that all states:
Prosecutions for consensual sex in private between adults violate the rights to privacy and nondiscrimination guaranteed under international law, including in the ICCPR. The UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors compliance with the ICCPR, has made clear that it is prohibited to discriminate based on sexual orientation in upholding any of the rights protected by the treaty. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has found that arrests for same-sex conduct between consenting adults are, by definition, arbitrary. The African Commission on Human and People's Rights explicitly calls on member states, including Egypt, to protect sexual and gender minorities in accordance with the African Charter.