The Egyptian man with short black hair and a brown turtleneck sits relaxed, casually sipping his coffee. Only the deep circles under his eyes reveal his misery, as he recounts his six-month ordeal when Cairo police arrested him, then interrogated, whipped, and imprisoned him and 51 other alleged homosexuals.
They were arrested last May during a highly publicized raid on the Queen Boat, a discotheque and gay hangout on the Nile River. Ayman (not his real name) thought his troubles were over after he and 28 others were declared innocent and released this past November, but he was wrong. "The case changed my life completely," he says. "I had a job, a family, money, a very good career, friends. I've lost everything." Today, Ayman is desperately seeking political asylum in France.
Hossam Bahgat of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, an Egyptian human rights organization, and other experts estimate that since January 2001, the police have made about one arrest per month based on a person's sexual orientation. Often police torture these detainees to extract confessions, use questionable evidence to convict them, impose harsh prison sentences, and allow the media to publicize the cases, often rendering defendants social outcasts in this traditional society that rejects homosexuality, they say.
"There's an alarming trend now to convict alleged homosexuals in very weak cases that lack any evidence against them," Mr. Bahgat says. "This suggests that the judges are ruling according to their own moral and social beliefs, rather than by the law."
Experts attribute the rise in arrests to the Internet, a popular means for gays to communicate. They say police have made good use of cyberspace to entrap gays by setting up supposed dates and then arresting them.
In one of the latest convictions of alleged gays earlier this month, four men were given the maximum sentence of three years in prison, based largely on accusations of an arresting officer who never appeared in person to present his evidence to the prosecutor, say Bahgat and Scott Long, director of the San Francisco-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
Defendants claimed they were tortured during their detention, and witnesses at the trial say the judge shouted "bring on the faggots" from his office before the case began.
In the Queen Boat case, 52 suspected homosexuals were tried in a security court, which usually doles out stiffer sentences and gives no right of appeal. The other cases against gays have been in civil courts.
The court sentenced 23 of the accused to one to five years in prison for "habitual debauchery" with two also being charged with "contempt of religion." At the beginning of the case, Egypt's semiofficial press branded the detainees perverts and traitors, publishing their names, professions, and pictures.
When asked whether the government was conducting a campaign against gay men, state information services chairman Nabil Osman said: "It's very disgusting. Homosexuals may be accepted in Western societies, but they're not accepted in our society. Neither are they permitted by religion, be it Islam, Christianity, or Judaism."
Political analysts offer various theories to explain this apparent campaign against gay men. Some say the government wants to confirm that it protects the country's moral rectitude - not the Islamists, who enjoy wide popular support in this conservative Muslim country. "The government is trying to send the message that it also defends religious and social values, not only the Muslim Brotherhood," says Ahmed Seif el-Islam, executive director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center.
For years, Egypt's human rights groups have felt threatened by restrictions on their foreign funding and by arrests of rights activists. However, Western human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have stood by Egypt's gays, charging the Egyptian government with a miscarriage of justice, persecuting homosexuals, and violating basic human rights.