Hate Crimes

Like the Taliban, America’s Middle East Allies Tyrannize Gays and Women

The fact is, some of the countries the U.S. is now cozying up to have oppressive laws and policies frighteningly similar to the Taliban's. In Pakistan, the U.S.'s newest ally in the so-called war on terror, homosexual acts between men or women are crimes punishable by death. Though the law is rarely enforced, it is used as a threat to intimidate people and as a blackmail tool by the police. In Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar, laws against homosexual acts are enforced with prison sentences of three to 10 years. In the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, both male homosexuality and lesbianism are crimes punishable by death.

Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive, must get written permission from a male relative if they want to leave the country, and cannot walk outside without being accompanied by a male relative. Male homosexuality in Saudi Arabia is punishable by death. In 1996, a man was reportedly beheaded as a punishment for homosexuality. Last year, nine transvestites were subjected to 2600 lashes each in public, violating a UN convention Saudi Arabia signed that prohibits torture for performing "deviant" sexual acts, and were sentenced to several years in prison as well. (Police had caught the men on surveillance cameras dressing in women's clothes.)

In Egypt, women run the risk of losing their citizenship if they marry a non-Egyptian. And 52 men accused of "practicing debauchery with men" have been on trial in Cairo over the past several months in a spectacle that has received international attention. The two main defendants have been charged with "forming a group that aims to exploit the Islamic religion to propagate extremist ideas."

The men had been arrested inside and outside a riverboat disco, the Queen Boat, that was raided last May. "This disco had a policy of admitting single people—most places only admit couples," says Scott Long, ILGHRC's program director. "The police targeted men who they thought were effeminate or men who were alone."

The arrests are part of what appears to be a crackdown by the Hosni Mubarak government that some believe is an attempt to distract Egyptians from the serious problems plaguing the country, while also pandering to Islamic fundamentalists by suppressing an increasingly visible gay community. A month before the disco raid, in April, reports emerged of men having been entrapped by police on the Internet as well: Posing as potential sexual partners, police met with men who were seeking sex online and then interrogated them, a tactic similar to the crackdowns on supposed pedophiles in the U.S. A month earlier, an Egyptian computer engineer was sentenced to three years in jail, and an accountant to 15 months, for engaging in the scandalous act of advertising for sex on the Internet.

Some of the Cairo 52 have reportedly been tortured and abused in jail, coerced to confess by use of electric shock treatment, and are being tried in State Emergency Security Court, a special court system that was created specifically to deal with terrorists and criminals who pose threats to national security. A 15-year-old boy who was swept up in the raid at the Queen Boat has already been tried, found guilty, and sentenced to the maximum penalty of three years in prison. The court ruled that he was guilty after a medical examination had showed he'd engaged in "debauchery."

The trial of the Cairo 52 resumes this month. There are fears among activists that Mubarak's government, wanting to appease angry Islamic fundamentalists while it sides with the U.S. against the Taliban and Bin Laden, has cracked down even further on suspected homosexuals and that the fate of the Cairo 52 will be worse than previously thought.

"The 'war on terrorism' is seen in parts of the Middle East as an attack on Islam," Khan explains. The government of Egypt, trying to appease the religious right's opposition to Egypt's participation in such a 'war,' is ready to step up discrimination against homosexuals. Long adds that reports are surfacing of additional arrests. "I just got a note from Aswan saying a number of men were arrested in their flat," he says.

In August, Congressman Barney Frank and 34 other members of Congress sent a letter of protest to the Mubarak government, as have UN officials. But while activists say the state department under the Clinton administration was more vocally proactive on antigay human rights abuses around the world, prior to September 11 there was no pressure on Egypt by the Bush administration, and it's doubtful there will be any now.

It's understandable that the U.S. needs Egypt as an ally in isolating the Taliban; It's not in the U.S.'s best interest if Egypt experiences internal strife that might destabilize its government at this critical time. But the U.S. most certainly can—and must—speak up about Egypt's and other countries' human rights abuses at the same time that it forms a coalition against terror. What, after all, is the U.S. fighting for when it claims to be preserving freedom and democracy?

"Egypt is already an ally—it's more than an ally, it's basically a client state of the U.S.," notes Long, referring to the fact that Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid (Israel being the first). "We fund the Egyptian government, and that's why Egypt is joining the coalition. If we're going to use that relationship to engage with them on terrorism, we should not be afraid to use it to engage with them on human rights. These are 52 human beings. They range from young students to engineers to doctors to lawyers to construction workers, and they're facing persecution. They should not be further victims of September 11."

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