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.